Yes, they go together.
I write this from 35,000 feet up in the free blue air. A grey quilt of clouds obscures the earth below, but sometimes the cloud down frays and the earth winks up, a brown, wry face patterned with laughter lines and the rutted gullies of old tears. I never get tired of having the window seat on an airplane. My awe at technology is usually spoiled by my suspicion that it might be ruining my imagination, but I still have a tiny girl’s wonder at the fact that we humans can fly. Airplanes feel a little like magic to me. I could sit here, nose pressed against my window, reveling in my rare, eagle’s eye view for hours.
At the moment though, I’m also just glad to be sitting. I can feel the dark circles under my eyes. For the third time in four weeks, I have gotten up far too early to lug a half dozen suitcases and crates to various airplane counters. I have packed and unpacked, washed (and, well, “unwashed”) more loads of laundry in the past months than I care to mention, changed time zones, chased rental car shuttles, and stumbled up, hair awry and eyes slightly wild to quite a few hotel desks. I have a bag of cherry tomatoes in the bottom of my bag, because I couldn’t stand to throw out good produce one more time, but they sit next to a bar of chocolate because travel season wrecks my healthy intentions. My carryon is stuffed with the speech I haven’t yet gotten by heart, the insurance papers I haven’t figured out, and the manuscript I still haven’t edited though the deadline is this weekend. In order even to write this, I must ignore the ten, urgent, unanswered emails sitting on the next tab over.
I tell you all this because in this rare moment of (literally) suspended calm, I find myself contemplating the worth of doing hard things.
Everything in my life of late seems hard. Conference season is hard. It comes as a mix of marathon, disaster, and holiday. Writing is hard. My brain at the end of a working day feels like a mental sponge squeezed dry of every word, and my heart rate spikes at thought of all the work I have yet to do. Integrity is hard. To write about beauty is one thing, to make it amidst exhaustion and laundry with nerves frayed and tongue sharp is harder. Health is hard. To eat good food, to walk long miles, to seek out natural instead of processed food takes time, and thought, and a mighty dose of discipline. (Especially amidst travel.) Even loving God is hard. Turning my mind away from the many lists of things I need to do, the countless desires, the endless distractions in order to sit with my Bible and listen, listen to his whisper in the silence is one of the most difficult habits I have ever undertaken.
Hard, every bit of it. Hard every single day of my life.
Yet undeniably, unequivocally… good.
In the past months I have watched myself complete a manuscript I never thought I could manage, and impossible deadlines were the grace that helped me to do it. I finally managed to articulate my convictions about story because I was forced to spit them out in the last-minute, white heat of speech-writing the hour before I was due on stage. The countless vegetables I’ve chopped, and lettuce I’ve washed for daily salads has paid off in a health I haven’t known for years. The friendships found and renewed in these conference weekends have kindled my heart, deepened my conviction, set me on my feet to work for yet another year. Life burgeons around me, good work flourishes, the soil of my heart is rich with new ideas and I know that the endless work of writing, of health, of love to which I have given myself with freshened vigor this year is worth every bit of what it costs me.
The truth I find is that every good thing I know requires hard work. It requires, not just a dose of effort to get it started, but the grit to hold fast and keep on when the inspiration fails. Day in and day out, a life that is in any way good requires steady labor, something I don’t always factor in when I am dreaming about the lovely things I’ll make and the heroic deeds I’ll accomplish. The good life – here in a fallen world where what was meant to be good was broken – is a hard life. We fight fallenness in every atom of existence. But every bit of the goodness we we make proclaims the someday new heaven and earth. And somehow, brings the kingdom come, even amidst the shadows.
I write this to remind myself to endure, because my idealist self often lags in the midst of all the effort. When I’m tired, as I am today with the hum of the plane around me, I wonder if its all worth it. I write this to shore up my will to endure, to strengthen the conviction that grows feeble when all I really want to do is lounge in my chair and drink five cups of tea.
But I also write this because I’ve been thinking of late about one of the hardest but best creations I have ever experienced: my family.
In conference season, I am always made keenly aware that many people watch my family. The parenting ministry that my mom and dad carry out means that we Clarksons are somewhat in the public eye. We are a family marked by our ideals, and our ministry is, in large part, to hold those ideals forth to the world and challenge others to follow them as well. But I wonder sometimes if the strength with which we state our ideals leads people to the mistaken assumption that we live an ideal life. That goodness comes easily to us, and hard to others. That somehow we were born with harmonious hearts and quiet tempers and curious intellects.
By the time we show up at conferences, feet padding the plush carpet of yet another hotel, we strive to look grown up in our Sunday clothes and polite (if not well-rested) faces. We do, of course, try to have good things to say. We strive to articulate all we believe and present a gracious face to the world. But a whirlwind of hard work and sore shoulders, heartache and heart-searching lies behind us. Imperfect attitudes, impatient words, and discouragement are the shadow side of the inspiration that propels us forward. We struggle, we grapple, we cry. We also laugh and cook and sing. We wash a thousand dishes and cook a thousand good meals and light the candles every evening and play our classical music. Behind every conference we throw or speech we give are countless quiet days of hard work and hard choices. I’m not saying that we live differently than the ideals we hold forth. I’m saying that we fight like wild men to attain them and we have been fighting for as long as I can remember.
These thoughts all began two nights ago when my Mom and I strode out to walk off our adrenaline in a purple and windy dusk. Our talk was of family, that hardest and best of works, and my talk was of the struggle I find to love. We spoke of old frustrations and the grief they still cause. Of quirks and personalities that tax and bless us all at once. We spoke of the arduous decisions required by faith, the tough endurance required by real love, the never-ending forgiveness it demands and the ever-fresh friendship it brings. And when I had finally spit all the struggle out of my mouth in a torrent of irritation, I took a deep breath and listened to my mother teach me once again to love. To open my hands. To open my heart. To endure. And to do it all over again the next time.
As we pounded the last road home, I realized that we Clarksons are who we are – idealistic, fiercely loyal, writers, musicians, tied to each other at the hip and convinced we can help to bring God’s kingdom to bear on earth – because we stayed in the fight when the fight got hard.
Our fantastic relationships were formed in part by fantastic fights and spectacular disagreements, but we endured them all, rode the high, hard winds of strife into the safe harbor of affection. We did not turn back and we did not let go. We did not withdraw from loving when loving got hard, but neither did we let hard things make a large and silent wedge between us. We took issues head on whatever they were and argued them out until they were gone. Jesus said of the woman who washed his feet that “she who is forgiven much, loves much.” And I think that principle is part of what forms the fellowship and ideals of my family. They who fight much, who endure each other’s quirks, who ride out the tempests of difficult circumstances and personalities, who laugh and weep and watch each other’s creation know a comradeship that can only come from the brotherhood of battle. The victory we have, the love that knits us close was only to be forged in struggle.
The truth is that we Clarksons have wrestled with God over and over again, every one of us, just like Jacob in the wilderness grappling with sin and pain and the strange presence of the Almighty. In striving to create new things, to live our ideals, to keep communion, we wrestled with God in our hearts and we wrestled with God in each other. Every inch of ground we gained in love came with years of hard battle. But we fought forward, knowing that to fight was to hope and even to love, because it was a kind of journey. We were fighting our way back to each other and not away. We were grappling toward beauty and we wrestled until we were blessed. We strove until we overcame.
That, I suppose, it at heart of what I am striving to understand, to tell myself here and as I do, tell you too. If love is to be formed, if families are to stay close, if stories or songs are to be made, if ideals are ever to be kept, hard work is the high and never-ending cost. In a fallen world, where the good that was meant to be was broken, we have to wrestle every day to love God, to do justice, to love mercy, to make beauty. But God wrestles with us. His Spirit incites us to the fight with visions of the good that was meant to be. His Son joins us in the battle, brother and lover who suffers so that we may overcome. And the Father waits at the end of our battle, the “great rewarder of those who seek Him.” In him we live and move and have our being, and in him we fight the great fight, and in him we trust that the good we make here is just the beginning of the kingdom come and a beauty that will never end.
So courage, dear hearts, as Aslan whispered to Lucy. Courage, I whisper to myself as the plane dips its nose under the quilt of clouds and the earth reaches up to grasp me once more. The work is about to begin again, good and hard. I’m ready.
Sarah Clarkson is an author, blogger, and student of theology at the University of Oxford. She loves books, beauty, and imagination and wants everyone else to understand why they should too. She is the author of Read for the Heart (a guide to children’s literature) and Caught Up in a Story, an exploration of the way that narrative and imagination form a child’s sense of self. She wrote The Lifegiving Home with her mother, Sally Clarkson, and blogs about home, books, Oxford, and beauty at thoroughlyalive.com. When not chasing doctrinal mysteries down in the Bodleian, walking the meadows, or drinking another good cup of coffee, Sarah can be found at home with a good novel in the red-doored English house she shares with her husband, Thomas.