Dear Claire

People talk about unrequited love like it’s some kind of tragedy, like the person who loves is the one who is deficient. And it is a tragedy. We live in this broken world where we can’t predict or control everything, where love doesn’t always get to grow at the same rate or between the same people. But you have to give yourself permission to love who you love when you love them. That doesn’t mean you should negligently let someone else hurt you, and you shouldn’t become a stalker. Boundaries are important, but it’s ok to love at a distance, and it’s ok for that love to hurt, and it’s ok that it will fade eventually, even though you don’t want it to. And it’s ok to sometimes do something a little stupid for love’s sake, not because that’s what love is or what lasting, healthy relationships are founded on, but because our best lives are ones lived in love. So it’s ok if you decide to fight for it.

My Big, Heavy, Yellow Cookbook

I have a big, heavy, yellow cookbook. It was put out by Gourmet Magazine, and a copy of it was gifted to my older sister for her birthday or Christmas back when she was in high school. I love it. It is my food bible. Over the years I have tasted more recipes from it than any other cookbook I own. All others pale by comparison.

I wasn’t always a cook. I knew how to make the usual: macaroni and cheese, brownies, Jell-O, biscuits, and French toast—not necessarily from scratch. My older sister, on the other hand, developed a love of cooking and became our resident cinnamon roll maker. She soon branched out into other dishes, and, before I knew it, she had created a Christmas Eve feast for our family. There would be other dinner parties to come. They all came from the yellow cookbook. My food XP shot up at least twelve points thanks to her. Early favorites (which are still favorites) included penne a la vodka and lasagna with ground veal instead of just ground beef or sausage.

When I went to France, there was no shortage of delicious food, but I longed for Burkitt cuisine (deserving of its own sub-genre, Burkitt cuisine overlaps primarily with American cuisine, not lacking in hillbilly, but compensated for by an equally strong tendency toward the cosmopolitan and anything foreign). I had taken a cooking class to fill an elective the year before, becoming familiar with the system of cooking and baking; I knew the difference between a roux and a reduction, how to cook an omelet in sixty seconds, and what constituted a quick bread versus regular bread. I was far from commanding in the kitchen, but during my year abroad, I became proficient in a number of family favorites as well as adopting and creating some of my own recipes. I was practically famous for my tacos (the irony of this acclaim as an Anglo-Saxon American has never escaped me). My friends at school enjoyed the batches of tiny chocolate chip cookies I would bring with me to class—actually, that may have been why I had friends at school. I also experimented with chili, oven-baked chicken (a Burkitt classic), pancakes, and an entire Thanksgiving dinner from scratch (minus the turkey).

I returned from France twenty pounds heavier and with a great deal of knowledge about how to cook as well as a knack for planning a menu. Despite this, I never once practiced any of the classic French dishes I now make routinely while I lived there. I just ate them. I had arrived in France with a knowledge of cooking as a system. The French, as is their custom, taught me the art of cuisine. Food went from being a way to stay alive to a way of life. So it was that the French obsession with dinner parties, really excellently planned and executed dinner parties, wore off on me. I can hardly think of throwing a dinner party without devising a four or five course menu. This has been a somewhat heartbreaking fact of my life, because none of my living situations have had enough space for a proper dining room, let alone a table. If I had the space, I probably would have started a supper club by now, and the only way to get a hold of me would be to show up at one of my dinners.

In all of this, my slight jealousy of my sister’s cooking triumphs, my dedication to baking the perfect chocolate-chip cookie, my ecstasy at observing other people enjoying what I made, lies a story. It is the story of Babette’s Feast (by Isak Dinesen and adapted to film), about a French chef whose grace and beauty and bounty are all perfectly expressed in cooking. She understands how food brings people together, that an artist is never poor, and that sacrificial love can come in the form of a perfectly planned and executed dinner party.

So now, six years after returning from France and twenty pounds lighter, I throw these dinner parties sometimes. I try to throw about one per year. I invite my favorite people and have them bring wine and cheese. I plan a menu. I make place cards and spend hours carefully considering where each person should sit. I ask my best friends—the ones who also understand that food is really about love—to help make things like bread or dessert or salad. I always pick the recipes, though. And we have the best food any of us can remember eating. It takes about three hours to eat everything. Then we all sit around and enjoy each other’s company.

My big, heavy, yellow cookbook has little messages from my guests and fellow cooks. One friend wrote, “You and Babette have become one tonight,” after a particularly colorful dinner. Every time I read this, I am filled with joy. The apostle Paul wrote that there was no greater gift than to lay down your life for another. I doubt I will have many opportunities to die for someone else. So I shall occupy myself with the gift of food in an ever-expanding repertoire of delight.

Some people love to love. I love to cook. I love to cook for people I love.

Wrong isn’t the Same as Bad

People disagree a lot. We like to assume that when someone disagrees with us, it’s because he is stupid, ignorant, or even evil. Really, most of the time, it’s about having conflicting priorities. Why are there people who are pro-life? They value the life of the unborn and want to protect it all cost, even at the cost of certain rights for women. People who are pro-choice value the rights of women and want to protect them at all cost, even at the cost of the unborn. It is probably the case that pro-lifers and pro-choicers both value the life of the unborn. It is also probably the case that both value the rights of women. I wish there was a way to have a conversation that encouraged the protection of both, but, instead, we assume that people who disagree with us are stupid, ignorant, or evil.

I majored in philosophy. I am pretty good at it. One of my first philosophy professors recruited me into the major because he thought so too. There are people who are a lot better at it than I am. There are people who are worse at it. Mostly, though, there are people I disagree with.

One thing you end up getting really comfortable with as an undergraduate student in philosophy is being wrong. You change your mind about the existence of souls or God or universals three or four times. You think that Cartesian Dualism makes no sense, even though, fifteen minutes ago, it was the only theory you knew existed. You take metaphysics and become a compatibilist just to cover all your bases. You learn that the most famous philosophers can also be the most wrong; they’re famous because they redefined the box, not because they were right.

None of us is perfect. None of us is right all of the time. We don’t have to agree about what contributes most to human flourishing, but being open to being wrong is so very important. It is extremely likely that you will be wrong about some things, so listen when people tell you they think you are. Listen past their wounded pride and their offended tone. Listen past the condemnation and condescension. Listen past their tropes and their emotionally distant wall. Listen for kindness and understanding. Listen for common ground. Listen to learn.

Then, call your mom and talk about nonsense. Cuddle with your someone. Drink some cocoa. Drink some tea. Watch some fluff about hipsters in Portland or a bad nineties mystery put out by BBC. Play a video game where you get to be the hero. Put on your favorite footie pajamas (because you definitely have more than one pair). Relax. Even when you’re wrong, you’re still OK. You are still loved and accepted. You are still human and capable of good things. It isn’t about being right, and being wrong isn’t the same thing as being bad.

Great

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

-William Shakespeare

This line was written as hyperbole to puff-up the already large ego of a character in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Its pompous grandeur and false depth were laid as a trap to make a fool out of a very arrogant man. It worked (watch the play). What was Malvolio’s failure? Why was he so taken in by these words?

He was blind to the greatness in others.

I must admit—albeit sheepishly—I have often aspired to greatness (I even read that Jim Collins book). I don’t mean popularity or approval. Those things are not indicative of greatness. Greatness is not about how many people know your name. This is why I love shows like The West Wing and Newsroom. They unfold events that demand greatness of the characters (who fail—a lot). In turn, this demands greatness of the audience. It’s inspiring. It’s…relieving.

Now, I will tell you a secret, something I suspect Shakespeare knew when he sarcastically scribbled the above lines: greatness is not a birth right or an achievement or a force of nature. Greatness is a generosity.

Unless we believe that others are great, we cannot be great. Unless we choose to see others as equally capable of all the greatness we hope to achieve, we are merely going to be Malvolios, or worse (and possibly more pitiable), the same CEOs whose business decisions lead to economic havoc or the politicians who can’t create laws supporting average Americans while their own income is wildly disproportionate to the average. We will be the nagging mother or critical boyfriend. We will be the micro-managing boss or the choir lady who corrects everyone else but never sings on key. Treating people with contempt is the best way to hinder your own greatness.

If any of us strive for greatness—in our careers, with our families, in our communities, in our faith—we must believe that the people we meet, interact with, and read about have the same potential for greatness as the fire that burns in our own imaginations.

This does not mean that everyone is, in fact, great.  Some are in outright rebellion to greatness. Some are merely pretending. They have learned the right songs to sing and the right beers to order in pubs. They have just enough hipster in them to make them interesting without being condescending. They have just enough nerd in them to make them intellectual without making them socially awkward. They have just enough art to make you think you could write poetry to them forever. And of course, there is greatness in them; they’ve just turned it off with so many shoulds and constructs of cool.

Maybe my determination to see greatness in others is foolish optimism. Maybe even the term “great” inevitably leads us into the same trap Malvolio falls prey to. Maybe this is just a sentimental ideal, a remnant of the archaic Platonic philosophy. Maybe the amount of evil in the world is too much, or maybe the system is just broken.

Maybe.

Sacred Interruptions

I don’t know where this comes from, but even our dependence on language seems to be born out of our propensity for categorizing.

We plan and construct and carefully organize. We buy plastic bins to hold our out-of-season clothes, our Christmas decorations, our past selves that we can’t quite throw away. If we have enough, we build castles, or we content ourselves with one in a row of tidy, little cottages. We keep calendars and balance checkbooks. We learn math and logic and how to bring order to everything we touch. We think agency is orderly.

Then there are people. They are messy things more often than not. They open up our neatly kept boxes, reorganize our cupboards, draw out of us our deepest fears and joys. Relationships are really sacred interruptions, more than phone calls or bad traffic. We cannot approach the sacred with sharpies and bankers boxes. Relationships are mysterious things that cannot be boxed and shelved so easily as our memories. They are to be among the most cherished of our posessions. We may approach, as one philosopher put it, with fear and trembling. 

The Art of Invitation

“Jesus never compelled; he invited.”
-Chip Burkitt

I sat across from him in a study room at the library. Neutral ground. I had convinced myself I was in love with him, convinced myself that he cared deeply about me, after phone calls from Oxford, Christmas with his family, and tearful conversations about his dad or grandpa. I thought I was important.

He sat across from me and took back every apology he had made just a few days before, when I told him I felt hurt and that I wasn’t going to hurt silently anymore. I confronted him because I thought he was worthy. People make mistakes, are blind to how their actions affect others, and can fix it if they know it’s broken. He didn’t want to fix it. He wanted to blame someone else.

I was stunned as he told me that all of the things he had done to hurt me were my fault. I got up to leave, and he coaxed me back to my seat, repeating my name in a sincere, serious tone. Why did I stay? To date, that was the single most painful conversation I have ever had. I felt utterly obliterated. He told me that I was too much, that my desire for intimacy was impossible, because I was too intense (not just for him, for anyone). He told me that I initiated too often, started conversations, planned events. He told me that our friendship only existed because I pushed and pushed.

Afterwards, my friends told me he was an emotional cripple who couldn’t appreciate authentic human connection. For a long time, I believed them. Sometimes, I still do.

This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that I was accused of initiating too much. This isn’t just a failure of conservative Christian sub-culture to accept that women can play an equal role in the formation and sustaining of a relationship. This feedback is actually true. I initiate all the time. I have an idea; I try to make it happen. I think someone is interesting; I invite him to things. I do it so very automatically; I don’t even realize I’m doing it.

I’ve discovered since then that there’s a reason I’m good at initiating. The Clifton StrengthsFinder says that I am an activator. Activators start things. I have other strengths too, giving rise to frequent ideas and the drive to get things done. I’m also an extrovert who is good at meeting new people and collecting new experiences. I am a risk-taker. This word—risk—can cast me in the best or worst light.

In relationships, this can be trying. Not everyone likes to start new projects. Not everyone likes my ideas. Not everyone feels comfortable being asked to social functions over and over again and having to turn them down due to other commitments. I can very easily see how my enthusiasm and persistence could be completely exhausting and stressful for someone else, especially if that person dislikes having to say “no.”

I finally walked away from the library room promising to hate him for a while, shaking, and an hour late to one of my classes. I’m not sure how I survived those months, not talking to him, following through on my promise to loathe him, trying to readjust my routine—I actually got As in all my classes that quarter. As it turns out, I was in love with him and foolish for it. I couldn’t see that then, though, but I wouldn’t undo it. Just like we should carry our great loves with us throughout our lives, our great sorrow must come too.

Over time, I have learned the art of invitation. At any rate, I know it exists. I am far from perfecting it. Inviting is a specialized form of initiating. An invitation conveys generosity, acceptance, and kindness.

“Jesus never compelled; he invited.” This is how the church (at its best) operates as well. And this is my goal, to invite, to let people know that they only need knock, and that, once they are inside, there’s no need to worry about me locking the door behind them. Every day, I am striving at cultivating a heart that says, “Come in; it’s warm and cozy in here, and we will have oh so many adventures,” a heart that is strong and resilient to rejection (after all, you’re probably doing it wrong if you’ve never experienced rejection).

This approach will still scare people. It will feel as though it is too much, as though I am too much. But if that is the case, it will be because of demands they are placing on themselves, not ones that come from me.

Today, he and I are friends, not the kind that text everyday or know everything about each other. We catch up at parties and reminisce or philosophize over drinks sometimes. In those moments, I am reminded what had intrigued me; I remember why we became friends in the first place.

Improvisational Comedy: Say Yes

If you ever do any improv at all, you will learn the first rule: say yes. You can’t start a scene without saying yes. Well, you can try, but you won’t get very far. You won’t entertain the audience, and you won’t help your fellow performers look good. Improv fails when you don’t say yes.

I am not good at improv. I don’t have ideas about scenes until twenty minutes after they’re over. Taking the lead and introducing a new topic is not a natural thing for me when I’m on stage. I want to meticulously define all the parameters of my character, create a Pinterest account and spend three months only pinning what my character would pin. I want a deep and robust sense of who I have to be for every second I’m on stage. If I could, I would map out an entire ontology of the universe I’m acting in before I set foot on stage. I want to know exactly what I am meant to do at every moment.

This is not an option in improv. There’s no script. There’s just a short prompt: you’re on a sinking ship with only one life vest left.

Go.

And if you can’t think of anything else to do, you still have to start by saying yes. This, you will find, can bring about a wide range of hilarity, goofiness, laughter, and punchlines. But you have to keep saying yes. Otherwise, as I have seen too often, the whole thing falls apart.

There was a lot less at risk during the improv I performed as a part of my school’s Drama Club than in real life. Saying yes to college, yes to moving half way across the country (or to a different country all together), yes to dating that guy in my dorm freshman year, then that one senior year, then again just a few months ago, saying yes to moving in with your friends or practical strangers, saying yes to lunch with a friend who betrayed your trust, those have more risk.

The risk is vulnerability. It’s the possibility of depending on other people, of feeling lost, of not knowing what to say or how to say it. It’s sitting on the floor in your living room as your parents tell you that they can’t come to your graduation, desperately wishing you had decided to go to college closer to home. The risk is sitting alone in your room after you’ve said goodbye to another one you’ve loved, gasping for air between all the fluids that have seen fit to expel themselves from your face.

The risk is enough to tempt me to say no, to say I will not feel deeply, to keep myself from loving deeply, to keep myself from losing deeply. I will rest in the safety of anticipated movement, knowing the script, knowing how the story ends, knowing what tomorrow will bring. I will build my own little universe.

But soon I find that I can’t be in the performance at all, that small universes can be logically consistent, but oh so very limited. The thrill of being on stage is unlike any other, a combination of bravery and terror: life amplified.

I would like to submit for your consideration, that the risk is worthwhile, that you will always have your setbacks, your difficulties, your epic flops. But your shining moments are all the brighter for having said yes. Making yourself vulnerable to failure is one of the strongest things you can do.

Today, I am going to say yes.

After the Storm

This is one of the best songs I have ever listened to, sung in the shower, or based a clothing line on.

When I was about five or six, I somehow inherited a white, lacy dress. To my memory, it was beautiful, not one of those bad 80s dresses with huge shoulder pads. The lace was delicate. I really only have one memory associated with it, though, because I don’t think it lasted for very long.

I wanted to play outside, and I wanted to wear my fancy dress. I remember my mom telling me not to play in the mud while wearing the dress. I remember ignoring her, thinking I could play just a little without getting the dress dirty. I didn’t even come close. The entire dress was covered with mud, ruined. And I was so mad at myself, especially after my mom had warned me. Why hadn’t it been obvious to me that playing in the mud in nice clothes would ruin them?

——

Hope is hard. I don’t always know what to hope in or who to trust or whether my plans will work out. I don’t know if the risks I take will bear fruit or if I will find myself wearing a white, lacy dress in the middle of a mud puddle. I find myself in a lot of mud puddles—actually, mud puddles would be a relief by comparison. I try to do something new, tell myself I can, I work hard, and I fail. And while the fault isn’t always mine, it’s still hard to know what to hope for.

But there is hope. Remember the chorus:

And there will come a time, you’ll see, with no more tears,
and love will not break your heart, but dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see what you find there,
with grace in your heart and flowers in your hair.

While there are plenty of mud puddles after a storm for me to slip into, leaving me feeling disappointed and embarrassed, this reminds me to hope. It reminds me that my failed attempts at love and connection will end. Someday love will win. It hints at eternity, hints at resurrection, hints at the life of the world to come.

Today, I am still in the storm, and it doesn’t show any signs of breaking. Today, I am at the bottom of the hill, and I can’t see what comes next.

Yet, there will come a time…