Friday, June 6, 2014

All OK

If I could tell the world just one thing
It would be that we’re all OK.
- Jewel

When I was 4 years old, my mom, two older siblings, and then-infant brother were in a very serious car wreck.

When they got home from the hospital after a day where I waited scared with my 2-year-old sister and a babysitter, my mom and my big brother (who had both sustained serious injuries) settled down to rest. The big brother I hero-worshipped my whole childhood was laid out on the couch in the living room, vivid stitches tracing his forehead in long dark lines, still and quiet as I rarely saw him. My mom rested in her bed, her face black and blue, her arm in a cast.

At the time our rapidly growing 7-person family was living crammed into a tiny house little bigger than your average apartment, so there was just one corner to dash around to move from one invalid to the other. With a deep sense of urgency, I dashed back and forth around that corner, breathlessly asking one question over and over: are you OK?

I didn’t understand how to help, but I was incredibly determined to try. I brought my big brother coloring books and crayons, I brought him some favorite toys, I sat at his side and anxiously watched to see if they would make him better. He seemed grateful, and also tried in his own way to reassure me. I watched him try to engage the things I brought him, but really he just needed rest, so eventually I lapsed into silence and stillness, broken occasionally by the same question all over again: are you OK?

It’s been just about two years shy of two decades since I was that kid. But the more I come to understand myself and the events that are significant to me, the more I understand that I’ve spent a very large portion of the past eight years of my life doing the exact same thing: running back and forth from one person I love to the next, knowing they’re wounded (everybody is in some way), desperate to help, earnestly asking over and over again if they’re OK.

The things that have caused me the most grief in my adult life have not been people who wronged me or betrayed me. Those are things I honestly barely remember more than a moment most of the time. Instead, I have felt the most heartache when I see someone suffering and can’t stem the flow of their tears or bind their ruptured heart’s arteries, when I ask if they’re OK and the lump in their throat makes it so tight they can’t even answer, when nothing I bring them seems to help them get well.

These things haunt me. I want to love people, to be kind, to be a conduit of the compassion I find in Christ. And yet half the time I feel like the 4-year-old dumping coloring books on the lap of her brother with a severe head wound. What can crayons do against wounds such as these?

When I was a teenager, I had to learn how to be OK with myself not being OK (a lesson I will likely spend a lifetime re-learning). Now I am having to learn how to be OK with the fact that the people I love won’t always be OK right away, and maybe sometimes it’s not my fault-- because honestly it’s not about me at all.

There is a kind of self-absorption to thinking that the only chance for a person’s life to be made whole is for it to be made better by me. I vividly remember a night many years ago now when a friend I’d tried desperately to help was nevertheless in a lonely psychiatric ward under suicide watch, and I felt beyond a shadow of a doubt that it was because I’d failed to love her adequately. One of my dearest friends sat with me late into the night, and at one point she told me very softly I don't mean to be harsh, but it’s arrogance to believe you have that much control over someone’s life, that it’s entirely up to you whether they live or die.

I suspect to some people that would in fact sound harsh, but to me it held unbelievable freedom. It gave me freedom to grieve with and for my friend without feeling the burden of belief that her fate hinged on me.

So I’m learning it’s OK to wait with people, to sit in the silence, to get comfortable in the chaos, to cry over the phone with them without needing to offer a these are five incredibly wise steps towards fixing all this mess. We’re people in process. We’re not there yet. And that’s a beautiful and hopeful thing in itself, if I allow it to be.

And sometimes maybe showing up with coloring books isn’t a bad idea-- although now for me instead I usually show up with cups of coffee and rock song suggestions and a few awkward hugs. And something I’ve learned is that even if I express my caring so imperfectly, the fact that I’m trying to express it at all sometimes is what matters.

While I wait for the smoke to clear,
you don't even have to speak.
Just sit with me in the ashes here
and together we can pray for peace.
- Jason Gray

Monday, June 2, 2014

Moments in the Press Room

I had a moment last night.

I’d spent a couple hours standing on a red carpet for a major Christian music industry event, toting a camera, firing questions at some of my heroes. Now I was sitting in a cold, dark, almost eerily quiet press room backstage at one of the most famous venues in the country, alternately watching the feed of the night’s event and photographing nominees and presenters as they took turns on our press stage. Much of the night had already passed, and I’d made a thousand memories I knew would stay with me for a lifetime.

An unassuming artist took the press room stage, her dark curls comfortably, beautifully disarrayed, wearing boots with her dress in an act of irony similar to my own perpetual converse-with-formal-wear rebellion. I’d met her earlier that night on the red carpet, shook hands, exchanged names, and managed all of the above without anything out of the ordinary occurring. But as she started answering questions, I found myself grateful for a camera to press against my face to hide the reality that I was rapidly blinking back tears.

She was answering a question about the stories her songs tell-- stories much darker than most others in her industry, stories most are afraid to tell. She talked about how she was drawn to the dark because unapologetically admitting to it enabled hope to be a more rich reality, the contrast driving truth deeper home. And as she talked about this, suddenly I wasn’t hardcore professional Mary with my stack of all access laminates in a drawer at home and the confidence to stand on the fringes of a stage taking pictures in front of thousands of people. I was 15 year old Mary, sitting in a dark room with one of this artist’s songs on repeat on my cheap MP3 player, rocking back and forth and trying to dive so deep into the music that maybe-- just maybe-- for two seconds the pain would stop.

I still get moments like this often. I’d had one earlier that night when in the midst of a totally professional conversation with Scott Stapp, he spoke his story and unknowingly echoed my own, and for a split second I remembered being a teenager hanging on every word of Creed’s “One Last Breath.” I had another one a few days earlier when Jon Foreman sang again the dare that’s chased me for the past seven years: move. I dare you. And I had it a few months ago when I stood sidestage during a Skillet performance and cried yet again through the song that started this entire wild music ride for me.

And these moments aren’t instances of self-pity or sorrow for the past and the person I was. They’re moments simply where the brilliance of truth stabs at my chest with sudden piercing clarity, where I remember who I am, where I came from, and why I’m doing what I do.

My involvement with the music scene has been kind of like the most drama-filled highschool dating episode imaginable, but as I’m settling into a new role and a time where (ostensibly) there is a calm in the emotional storm, one of the things I swear to myself is that I won’t forget what started it all or what’s kept me here even when I felt frustrated or like I’d defined the call on my life entirely wrong.

Because I’m not on the red carpets or stages or press rooms or mics for myself or for anyone’s approval. I’m there because music has so often been the only thing that brought me outside of myself, that admitted to where I was while whispering that maybe-- just maybe-- there was something better to come. And I’m there because I would wear myself out on a million weekends like this last one to help connect other people to that same experience.

I am of the philosophy that music isn’t always supposed to throw answers at you, but it sure helps an awful lot with wrestling through the questions, with keeping your heart beating long enough so you can reach those answers.

So no matter where I go in this field, I hope I never stop having those tear-stained moments where I’m 15 again. I hope I never stop singing the songs that meet me in my questions, in my journey towards truth-- towards Christ. And I hope I never, ever forget that I’m doing this because of the millions of other people whose lives would change if they had those moments too.

Soli Deo gloria.