Hope is a shape-shifter

Can hope be a thing with feathers? A determined woman who won't stay down? The application of special face lotion? Karie Charlton says it is all these things and more.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash

For many years, I’ve heard clergy people read Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers” when we gathered after events in our city that made us feel a little helpless but want to claim hope for ourselves and our community. The poem helped me visualize a sweet little bird with broken wings nuzzled against my neck singing softly to my soul during a thunderstorm. Hope is comforting.

But lately, for me, and for what seems like many others in my social media feed, that image isn’t working anymore. Instead, I find this quote circulating among my feed, “People speak of hope as if it is this delicate, ephemeral thing made of whispers and spider’s webs. It’s not. Hope has dirt on her face, blood on her knuckles, the grit of the cobblestones in her hair, and just spat out a tooth as she rises for another go.” I think all of us are feeling a little worse for wear over the last few years, and this image of hope certainly captures that feeling. We have changed. Hope, or the practice of hope, must change too.

When I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, cycling through the worried answers to my disaster scenario “what if’s,” I’m learning to refocus my thinking and ask, “what if I have done enough already,” “what if it works out,” and “what if everything is actually fine.” These questions shift my thinking, from worry to hope. The answers to those questions are full of compassion for me and others. Changing worry into compassion makes way for the shape-shifting hope.

I admit I love the 2020 image of hope. She’s working hard to fight for causes and people she cares about. But this woman needs to learn when it’s enough. If I’ve already done my best or if I’ve already worn myself ragged, maybe it’s time to wash my face, brush my hair, bandage my knuckles, and go to the dentist, or whatever self-care is needed. I can’t give everything all the time. Technically, I can only give everything once. I can give my best, and sometimes I can give enough. And then I have to take care of me so I can give again. Maybe hope can be found in a self-care practice. Hope sinks into my skin with the sunscreen-enhanced facial moisturizer and I’m ready to step outside again. Taking time out to rest and reflect allows me to feel ready for the next task and enter it with the hope of making a difference.

If my plans work out, then instead of backup plans, I can make forward-moving plans. Instead of planning for failure, what if I assume success, how does that shape the future? In the trunk of my car, I have a bottle of windshield washer fluid, a warm blanket, jumper cables, and a first aid kit. I’m prepared for something unexpectedly bad to happen. One day I decided to also put in paper plates, disposable cutlery, and a corkscrew. I call it my emergency picnic kit. What if something unexpectedly good happens, what if it’s a beautiful day, what if I have some extra time? I could keep driving to Presque Isle, pick up snacks on Lake Erie’s wine trail and have a picnic on beach 6 to watch the sunset. There is hope in the sound of the waves, in the colors of the sunset, and in the idea that this beautiful day could happen at any moment.

“I’m fine. You’re fine. Everything is fine.” This is my hope-filled mantra. Try it with me. “I’m fine. You’re fine. Everything is fine.” Chances are you are reading these words on the Presbyterian Outlook website. Maybe you clicked on a link in your email about articles you may have missed. We are probably doing mundane tasks. So, take an extra moment here and assess what you are worried about.

Have you done what you can? Chances are yes. What would it look like to prepare for joy instead of disaster? Allow yourself to daydream a little. How do you feel in this moment? In this moment, neither of us is bandaging bloody knuckles or drinking wine. Everything is fine. Listen deeply. Is that little feathered creature singing to your soul? Is there a warrior battle cry deep in your bones? Or has hope shape-shifted again into something beautiful and new?

Beloved, this hope is for you.