On the 20-something Prescribed Narrative, Change, and Freedom

I arrived slightly disheveled, sweaty from an 8 hour bus ride from Philadelphia, feeling like I could cry at any moment, when I received one of the warmest welcomes in my entire life. One of those welcomes in which the person drops what’s in his/her hands, looks you straight in the eye, and says sincerely, “First, welcome. Welcome,” pausing in between the two “welcomes” to invite you to breathe a full inhale and exhale.

An hour ago, I was at Union Station in New Haven crying on the toilet, grateful for the journey ahead while already missing the wonderful community that took a while to find. Now that I had it- after many lonely nights in which I wanted to move away- I didn’t want to let it go. I spent four years in Baltimore: 1 awful, 1 better and two amazing, going from a place I once near hated to a place I loved with a maternal nothing-is-going-to-stop-me-from-loving-you kind of love.

But now, I was moving to DC after a two week training at Yale to become a Program Manager at a small nonprofit that trains college athletes to become sports-based HIV educators in DC middle schools. This was a dream come true, as I spent many a torturous night writing sport for development papers longing to get into this field, but had no idea how to get there. It was going to be a great year. Though I was moving a mere 45 minutes south, it was still a big change for me. The words of a pastor I respected were helping me come to terms with this change:

Photo: MO 2015

Photo: MO 2015

“All change, even good change, must be grieved because change is a form of loss.”

I was likely never going to live in that same house with the front porch that invited you to take in the stars before coming inside each night. I was losing a spiritual community that took me a while to find- one in which we talked about social justice and spirituality over wine and genuine, vulnerable conversation. And all of this reminded me of the passage of time, which produces an almost sick sense in my stomach knowing that all of those memories will never again be in actual real time.

But now, here, one year later, I’m finishing my fellowship. Around February, I began having those nights in which you’re up until 2 AM trying to fruitlessly figure out your life. I’d light a candle by 2:15, sit Indian style with my palms facing upward, and simply connect with God. Not wanting answers. Not asking for anything but to simply be, and be open. After 5 minutes of stillness, I’d hop back into bed and laugh at myself for demanding answers to life that cannot be told ahead of their time. That is, until a week later, when I’d repeat the whole process. And the week after that. Until it’s late May and it’s hitting you that there’s two months left and you’ve done nothing to prepare for your next transition.

But then I had a moment on my bike. Friends and I were biking on our way from DC to Pittsburgh, and I could only see ten feet ahead of me, peddling in the dark with my headlamp. It occurred to me how many times I’ve tried tracing shapes out of the shadows, trying to figure out the contours of the future, when all I really needed- –and all that was beneficial— was right before me- those precious 10 feet of light wrapped in the ambiance of quiet, cool fresh evening air. In 2010, I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, a future focused orientation that detracts from the present. Since then, every change, every decision was often met with a system of checks and balances, wanting assurance from a world that cannot promise that. But here, on these quiet bike trails, this stream of light pouring from my bike reminded me of a new way in which I wanted to orient myself: I would figure out my next life steps through travel, one destination at a time.

It’s now a matter of weeks until my fellowship ends and instead of my usual M.O. of anxiety, I’m actually at peace. At peace with traveling the world for a few months without a job lined up. At peace with spending time with sport for development organizations in countries where I’m grateful to simply be able to say two sentences in another language. I’ve thought about traveling the world extensively for a while now, thinking that was the ultimate activity you were supposed to do as a twenty-something. I felt shame at 25, 26 when I wasn’t doing that, still living in a city near where I went to college. But I have hindsight now to see that any earlier was not the right time for me. I had growing pains to work through that could only be worked through if I stayed where I was until I could learn how to be present, how to use my own voice, how to create community, how to stop holding myself back from the life of freedom I was trapping myself from.

Perhaps the best way we can measure how well we lived as twenty-somethings, or thirty-somethings, or seventy-somethings for that matter, is not by the number of miles traveled, or the archetypal narrative you think you’re supposed to be living, but instead, measure it by the moments in which you did something you never thought you’d have the courage to do. Measure it by the growth you see: in yourself, in the plants and trees around you. Measure it by the number of days in which you have no journal pages, because the days were simply too filled with beauty to be penned. Measure it by the numbers of conversations you had in which you walked away challenged, questioning the framework with which you always viewed the world.

That’s how I’ll measure these next several months after my fellowship. I know I’ll have anxious nights along the way, but maybe, just maybe, I will recall those words from that pastor that subconsciously gave me permission to grieve—and celebrate— change in whatever way I need to- be it in tears at unexpected places, or at 2 AM alone in my room, unsure of where I’m going. I’m learning that dances in the dark with Change’s shadows at God foresaken hours will be a part of my evolution. I’m learning to let go of the death grip I wrapped around the false security of detailed next steps that leave no room for mystery, wonder, surprises, hard challenges that are only there to show you how strong you really are. I’m learning how to ask, “What’s life trying to teach me?” instead of “Why the hell is this happening?” Learning that there are many narratives we can choose for ourselves, and that timeframes are truly a custom-fit, not one-size-fits-all.

It would make sense, then, to share with you that I’m writing this on one of my wandering mind til 2 AM nights- because I still wrestle and fight and muse in the midst of every change, even good change. I’m almost ready for the go-back-to-bed-and-laugh-at yourself part. Maybe tomorrow, if you see me, we can laugh in person, or in spirit, and we can unclench each other’s hands if they drift away from open palms, together living these changes, free, free…free.

.

Photo: MO 2015

Photo: MO 2015

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Thunderstorms & Victories

IMG_3868

MO 2015

I’m learning so much and some days it feels as though it’s too much goodness to take in. Days go by like minutes and all I can see when I close my eyes are still shot memories playing like a slideshow to echo how much goodness there is in the world when you have found your people, your own voice, your own spiritual expression. I see friends with whom I danced upon hilltops and city lots, celebrating art and culture and community. I see the many cities of the past that made me and the upcoming travels peeking up over the horizon that will soon make me. I see so much to celebrate and yet my mind is restless. I’m in a season of great excitement, but also unknown change after I end my fellowship in two months. In preparation, my to-do list expands ever long and a hundred possibilities of next steps to take keep my tired mind active until it’s 3 AM and I’m typing incoherent musings onto a blog.

But tonight feels a little different. Strong rain beats against the house and I open my bedroom window-fairly confident a cool front is coming through-to give some refreshing air to my muggy room. I turn off all the lights until I am laying in bed listening to the night sky speak in splendor through flashing lightning, rustling trees, and steady rain hitting pavement. My mind is tempted to sort through how I’m going to be able to fit in all the things I need to- or “should” do-this week in light of a couple weeks’ worth of upcoming travel.

But I lay here, the night storm reminding me of pleasant memories, like camping in Puerto Rico last summer. There was that night when I woke up at 4 AM muttering expletives over the tent window I left unzipped that resulted in wet pajamas and a soggy sleeping bag. It didn’t take long for cursing to turn to laughter as I thought about the joy it actually was to be woken up by both the insomniac bulls groaning in the distance and by a rain that smelled of intoxicating fresh raw Earth. I laugh at the memory, grateful that I’m enjoying tonight’s storm with the sound clarity as though I am out there in my tent, but with the luxury of a warm, dry body.

The storm has captured my heart into an entranced calm, the Earthen sounds, smells and sights a natural spring aphrodisiac of sorts. Lying there, listening, I feel as though the storm is speaking to my soul. You’ve forgotten what the point is, it calls out. You’ve forgotten the point is to daily lie in awe of a world filled with people and places and processes that you can’t explain but can only appreciate. The lightning grows brighter and I feel the rise and fall of my chest. You have a heart that beats over 100,000 times a day. Oxygen and lungs to breathe some 12-20 times a minute. Stars and sun that hang above you, grass and barefoot feet below you. All around us are people on the sidewalk, people in the grocery store, friends, family or maybe even a lover whose bodies do these processes too and have that light above and ground below.

So maybe the biggest victory I can have today is being able to stand in the midst of all the work and email and pending decisions and ringing phones to remember that life is for awe and wonder. Maybe my real achievement is not the next speaking engagement or conference invite, but is being able to close my eyes before slumber and hear the own pulse of my heart, pondering the human body and all of its unconscious processes that will go on whether we pay attention or not, like respiration and growing new skin. Maybe it’s in these achievements, these victories of mindfulness, that true life lies- a real place in which hope and peace dance in symbiotic heartbeats that draw creation to Creator. And maybe tomorrow, I’ll return to this space after another full but good day, and feel this gratitude perhaps unprecipitated by storms, in communion with Creator, in awe of a life I can’t explain. 

MO 2015

MO 2015

The Space Between Rootedness and Exploration

“Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word, isn’t it? So strong and forceful, the way you have always wanted to be. And you will not be alone. You have never been alone. Don’t worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed.” -Donald Miller, Through Painted Deserts
Photo: Firlefanz, Pinterest

Photo: Firlefanz, Pinterest

I never thought I would come to love this city so much. In fact, when I moved back here after backing out of my Peace Corps assignment, I felt ashamed. For four years, I lived In the Baltimore surburbs as an undergraduate. The world felt big and wondrous. I planned to spend two years in Africa with the Peace Corps and then two years in Colorado for grad school. Never was it in my plans to live near here again. But in 2010, after my mental health tanked and I needed to say “no” to my Peace Corps dream, I received a job at Johns Hopkins, living in Towson for another year before spending another three in different neighborhoods of Baltimore. In 2011, I moved to an underserved neighborhood with a friend and while I could never bring myself to say hate- I detested Baltimore. This neighborhood. My job. Didn’t see what this city had to offer, where its life was.

But then I moved to a quirky neighborhood, that, while not particularly racially diverse, is an eclectic source of artists, hipsters, cyclists, social advocates, a few old white men who never seem to leave the bar, and, of course, your standard Bawlmer Hon. I began going to a liberal Church that particularly focused on LGBT inclusion, learning much from my pastor who is a married lesbian. One meaningful connection led to another, as so often does, and pretty soon I began meeting these funky people in my neighborhood. We made videos on being people of faith who support marriage equality, paraded monthly through diverse neighborhoods of the city on bikes, gathered together for Tuesday night discussions on spirituality and social justice. I biked with triathletes through beautiful farmlands and open spaces. I became friends with a 60 year old Jewish woman I met in jury duty. I began going to holiday parties, meeting more and more friends who felt like “my” people in which I could both be accepted and challenged to become my best self in the community and the world. Sitting on the ledge of the front porch one night swinging my legs up and down, I looked up at the moon feeling so grateful for people and places of beauty and belonging. I don’t even recognize the me who once felt ashamed of living in this city with amity in my heart.
So in June 2014, when it was time for me to move to Washington DC, a mere 42 miles away, I sat back on the ledge of that front porch, feeling bittersweet about an exciting fellowship I’d soon be starting, and moving away from a city I began to love like a mother-nothing-can-stop-me-from-loving-you-do-you-hear-me kind of love. Sure, it would be easy for me to come back. But I reckoned it wouldn’t be the same.

And same it wasn’t, because life wasn’t created for sameness. But it has been good. And now, with a few months out in the horizon, I will be facing another transition. My fellowship in DC will end and I have no idea where I’ll live or what I’ll do. But in processing decisions I will soon have to make, I am struck by two orientations: rootedness vs exploration. Rootedness is what caused the latter half of my Baltimore experience to be so good. It’s those on-going deep conversations with people that only comes from meeting time and time again. Staying somewhere long enough to be able to laugh about an event with a group of friends that happened ten years ago… 10 years worth of stories, tears, ends and beginnings, a history so rich, you lost track of when you called these people “friends” instead of family.
I stopped looking for ways to leave this place, this “family,” given over instead to a desire to not just stay, but to connect with as many people, places, and activities that moved my heart. Some people call this “settling down,” a term I’m uncomfortable with. A phrase that brings to mind homogeneity- white fences in the suburbs with a spouse, dog and kids. A description that creates a binary- that you are somehow “unsettled” if you don’t take on this narrative; immature, wasting your life on the pleasures of the world instead of doing important adult things. Whatever you call it, though, it’s being able to say, “This is what I want. This is where I want to be. This is who I want to be with. This is what I want to be doing.” 

But what about those parts inside that long for new experiences, to learn as much from the world as possible by setting foot in all of its pockets and contours. That discovers career opportunities in other parts of the world that would be stimulating, yet would require leaving. That longs to say I spent my twenties (thirties, years, decades, whathaveyou) catching sunsets from different latitudes and longitudes- beyond travel? That wants to explore everything? That’s had enough of the fast-paced productivity-driven culture of DC and remembers, well, then you can simply leave?

I know this isn’t black and white, but I somehow feel as though one has to choose between rich relationships spent in community versus discovery and excitement that comes from living in many new places-a year here, a couple there, etc.

But what I’m slowly discovering is that space between. Not a cliche you-can-have-it-all space, but a space that celebrates meaningful relationships while also celebrating freedom and exploration. That’s fearless to leave, not afraid of packing up and charting anew, that won’t stay somewhere because it’s safe and convenient, but because your heart can truly echo, “This is where I want to be right now.” 

Rather than watching friends leave, a voice inside you wondering, “Gee, am I supposed to be leaving too?” Instead, knowing it’s perfectly acceptable to stay too. If I only ever lived within a 3 hour radius of my hometown, what does that say about me? Will I have missed out on some grand experience every young adult is supposed to have before marriage and family (if that’s even in their life plans)? Will it say I haven’t ventured out far enough?

Maybe, maybe not. But I won’t base the quality of these years on where I did or did not live. Maybe I’m never meant to officially move outside this 160 mile radius. Maybe the only time I will have wasted is time spent being somewhere, not fully there. That forgot to recognize this rootedness-exploration pendulum looks different for each person. Perhaps it looks like leaving before you can talk yourself out of it. Perhaps it’s staying engaged in a community and place you love, while feeding your heart’s longing for exploration through travel and diverse friendships, staying far from ritzy hotels and tourists traps and getting lost instead in people’s stories, culture, and off-beaten paths that await. Perhaps it looks like leaving and staying in touch. That setting aside money for a plane ticket back to the city and people you love once or twice a year is a worthy investment. Perhaps it’s simply the orientation that nothing is supposed to stay exactly the same.

I wrestle with this space, this space I know actually exists if your heart really wants to find it. I treasure this space. I celebrate this space.

Where are you going next? Where will your final resting place on Earth be? I can’t tell you that. Where will your friends go, your family, those you met on past travels? Will you ever be able to pinpoint on a map where “home” is anymore? Can’t tell you that either. I can only ask my soul, your soul, to open your hands wide enough to prepare for when that next step comes, that always-hard-at-first moment of transition. To look up at the sunset no matter what latitude or longitude you find yourself gazing from, and find it beautiful. To create community wherever you go, especially by vulnerably speaking your musings and experiences while listening to others as they do the same. Our hearts are big. But they’re also small when you compare it to our limbs and bones. The world is huge. But it’s small enough that there’s room enough in your big heart to hold the people who make it beautiful to you, and as your world expands, the people inside will squeeze in tighter, but in an sacred embrace they wouldn’t experience otherwise. Root. Unroot. Re-root. Transplant. Sprout. Or leave the ground altogether. And treasure that blessed space between.

I’ll see you between the water and the ledge.

mel cliff jump

Photo: MO 2010

 

 

Restless like a Thousand Tall Trees: 4 AM Thoughts on God, Change, and Dancing

Copyright MO 2012

Copyright MO 2012

I rub my eyes, grainy specs of rheum collected around my eyelids from the five hours of sleep I’ve gotten thus far. I’m not sure what it was that woke me up, other than the fact that I’ve been restless these past few days with jobs interviews that might potentially require a move. I lay in bed, then flip over on my side. But after 10 minutes of this, restless builds so strongly that I decide to feel my way down the dark stairs to get a glass of water. I head back upstairs and lay on the floor in my dark room, reminded of a couple songs that always brought me comfort in moments of uncertainty like this.

Even when I more or less walked away from Christian music a couple years ago, there were always a few songs I couldn’t shake. Audrey Assad’s “Lament” and “Restless,” being two of those. In the latter piece, she sings, “I am restless, until I rest in You, until I rest in You.” And tonight, I’ve woken up at 4 AM completely restless, having made a couple difficult decisions already this year, and soon to face a couple more, perhaps even a move from a city I have grown to love with a nothing-can-stop-me-from-loving-you,-Do-You-Hear-Me? kind of love, as I picture the faces of kind, fully alive people I’ve met over these past few years here. A smile and small laugh appear on my face, thinking about the places these folks have taken me. Dance parties. Biking down the city streets at night cheering at the top of our lungs so free. We climbed trees together. Played ukuleles in each other’s backyards. We square danced, rolled down hills, and laid under stars together. I love them all and every moment spent together.

But as I sit here in the 4 AM darkness of my room, I realize that I don’t know how people facing even bigger life changes than me do it. People who are a few months out from marriage or children. People who are moving to cities much further than my potential move. In all of this, I realize how averse and resistant I am to change. How I am not a willing dance partner to change’s dance. So I try to dance without change, only I keep scuffing my toes in the dark. My steps are heavy and clumsy.  Yet from across the room, I see change dancing freely and untrammeled in the open space, creating beauty, something more compelling than my solo dance in the dark corner.Come dance,” Change offers. I reach my hand out into the dark and wonder if I will ever be fully ready to accept this dance offer.

So hand reaching out, but not fully clasping Change’s hand, I think back to those songs I was talking about earlier, feeling exactly like the singer’s lyrics. I love when artists speak those experiences into melodies that flood your soul with a visceral hurt so good until you are singing right along too.

I continue to sit here on the floor in my dark bedroom. All is quiet outside, while inside, my soul “Rustles like a thousand tall trees. Why is it easy to work but hard to rest sometimes?” Audrey Assad’s words come easy to my soul tonight. “Still my heart, hold me close. I am restless until I rest in you,” her voice continues.
It’s been a while since I felt like I have truly rested in god while all of life crashes around me, thrashing waves thundering in the dark seas of change or hardship. It’s been a while since I’ve known life without anxiety, since 2006, in fact. And that’s ok; I’m not expecting nor demanding for anxiety to go away from my life completely. But I do wish to develop my wellspring reserves of confidence and unshakeability to believe that I can handle each of life’s changes as they come. Because bigger life changes are sure to come, especially when you’re someone who thinks you’d like to be married one day and adopt two kiddos. But when I sit here on my floor barely able to make peace with the changes in my life already, I think to myself, “thank God I’m not there yet.” 

IMG_1613But maybe God can show me how. How to rest in the one who made us. Show me what that looks like, because I have long forgotten, and I am weary. Show me what peace in the midst of uncertainty looks like, because I know there is a better way than my own self devices. There is a simple beauty to be found here, if I choose to try and walk its unnatural lines. And doing all of this, though not comfortable for me, would make my life easier too, I imagine. I mean, what’s easier, to trust in my own fears and dwell in uncertainty? Or take a chance on “all things working together for good,” like they told me in pews and sanctuaries so many years ago.

I take a deep breath, ready to hop back in bed and try again. I don’t have any new answers to my questions about the direction I’m going. But I do have a presence I’ve asked to teach me along the way, to show me what this rest looks like.

I can only ask myself to courageously try and follow this presence, this voice, the same voice that promises to lead us by still waters and open pastures.
I can only ask myself to embrace the question mark, the semi-colon, the dot-dot-dot ellipses…
I can only ask myself to be brave enough to accept change’s invitation to dance in each life stage.

Because there will be many, many more changes to come. Maybe I’ll marry one day. Maybe I’ll co-parent one day. I will say goodbye to strangers that came into my life for an ephemeral, teachable moment, recollecting their faces in daydreams or while idling in traffic one rainy afternoon. People I love immensely will die, and it will be a change that I will never, ever, feel fully prepared for. Because some changes you simply cannot ease your body into like a cold swimming pool.

But tonight, I can choose to reach my hand out to God and to change and choose to take a little solace in the journey that I’m so resistant towards. Maybe tonight, I will go to back to opening my eyes on the roller coaster, instead of keeping them shut. I will trade clasped hands on the lap bar, for hands held high above my head in the free, open air. 

But for now I’m going back to bed.

I hope to see you in the morning, feeling less philosophical and more fun, ready to dance like mad in the spring sunshine.

shadow dance

I’m Taking Off My Rose-Colored Glasses.

roses

CC MO Apr. 2013 Portland, OR

I’m taking off my rose-colored glasses.

They never fit quite right.
Things begin to look a little blurry when you put them on, a little naive, over and under inflating the challenges and joys of life.

Sometimes, when I look out, I see nothing but beauty, ecstasy, the thrill of future dreams coming into life, one soft rose petal at a time.
And that’s great for a little while,
But then I’ll miss all the beauty straight in front of me. Too farsighted. Drats.

Other times, I put them on, consumed by the thrill of the moment right here, the dance, the romance, the pleasure in the here and now, that I forget about long term consequences of decisions and how to create a future of hope of joy. Nearsighted. Drats.

But I don’t want to live that way anymore.

I want to see in plain vision, in living colour. 

To see things as they are, not as I idealize them to be.

To stare down the hard, cold realities of life, like death, and aging, and growing up, and leaving friends, or having friends leave you, as you move on and move forward. To meet with courage each of these realities in a way that melts away fear, turning it instead into a soft-glowing candle of acceptance.
Accepting that my twenties will come to end, and my 30s and 40s too, for that matter, and I will not live in a pseudo-forever young state that’s stuck in the past and evades responsibility for the future.

I want to accept that my parents will die one day, and find abundant ways to thank them for specific fond memories I have of them. Perhaps they won’t understand, and consider me an a maudlin sentimentalist. But when they die, and die they will, I know they will have heard every bit of my appreciation, words having been spoken, words having been heard and digested into the heart.

I want to accept that much of life is finding joy in the daily-s, not mountain highs of bucklist completions, but that doesn’t make life itself any less exciting or beautiful. After all, there is much opportunity to be had in menial tasks, like grocery shopping, for example. When we were kids, my dad used to run down the aisle, cart in tote, and then hop on the cart about halfway down the aisle. “Weeeeeeee!” This only worked when the nursing home bus filled with seasoned seniors had left the store, and the clueless four year trying to help Mom has gone to bed… he’d usually do this with, say, the 8 PM grocery shopping crowd. I still catch myself hopping on the grocery cart for a ride, too, sometimes. What can I say, it is fun.

Creating joy like that in the daily-s allows me to see the reality that life can still be beautiful even in despair. Because perhaps the worst thing about white-knuckling life in rose-colored glasses is robbing ourselves of the opportunity to feel the most raw and real parts of life. It makes way for someone to hold your hand when you’re truly at your lowest, proving that you will not be left alone in your sorrow, sweet child. It enables you to fully enjoy life’s most pleasurable experiences without the background of worry, nothing robbing you of intense joy, nothing tainting something so beautiful with cobwebs of anxiety. Instead of seeing life skewed the way I want it, I’ll look up when I can’t get out of my head. The cathartic stars will remind me to see the night sky daily, not just walk around aimlessly underneath it, but instead, to really soak it in, each sparkle singing of illimitable mysteries that cannot be easily solved. Hindsight may be 20/20, but there’s clarity to be found when we decide not to sugar coat our lenses of the world.

Un-squint your eyes.

Un-scrunch your face.

Open up your hands.

Look toward the sun.

Let the light in.

It’s time to be brave.

Toilet Paper on Our Shoes (and other thoughts on brokenness and healing)

I keep running into these moments, like a giant rock that I continually trip over. Maybe you know those moments. When it’s just you, alone somewhere with your thoughts. Perhaps it’s nighttime and you’re driving back home and it’s just you, the car, a bumpy road, and God. And the light that was once green has now transcended from yellow to red. So you’re sitting there stuck at the red light, going nowhere, and it’s just you, these thoughts, the feel of the steering wheel, and this ominous presence in your car with you, speaking through the windshield, or next to you, or through a crack in the window, oh, I don’t know. And you can’t run, you can’t hide anywhere; you’re exposed. Your running and distracting and avoiding and fearing are called out. You can’t resort back to your usual mechanisms of escape because it’s just you, stopped at the red light of sameness or change.
It’s as if you have no other choice but to face the music of your life soundtrack. And it’s a CD mix you’ve never heard before, so you don’t know which songs are the fast tracks, and which ones are melancholy. And as the next track begins playing, you realize the music is a sad and somber tune and all you wish is for the next song to be of joy and merriment because life is short, damn it, and shouldn’t we be living in carpe diem every moment? So you try and focus on the things that make you happy and get you thinking “it’s all good,” “it won’t be so bad,” and you minimize that it’s about to get hard. But then this snowball from the past comes flying in your face and all you can feel is its wet sting as it slides down your face and into your coat, slowly melting frozen snowflakes onto your chest like butter on toast. Trying to tell you that spring will never come until you deal with whatever it is you have to deal with. Oh sure. Things change. The next day you’ll wake up and you won’t be alone again and you can go back to distracting yourself with friends and people and tasks and to-do lists. Spring will come anyway, because seasons change and evolve. But the degree to which we fully enjoy each of these things, unfettered, comes from our willingness to throw away the toilet paper dragging from our shoes. Maybe you’re in such a hurry that you don’t even notice the paper trail from your soles, which the whole world can see bright as day. And maybe, just maybe, there might be one tender-hearted person who pulls you aside, alone, privately, safely, waking you up to the toilet paper on your shoe, without embarrassing you or belittling you either. Because we all have had toilet paper on our shoes before and we all have monsters in our closets that sometimes like to reappear. I mean, it’s not about the toilet paper. It’s those conversation that say, “Hey, I’ve noticed something about you.” And someone asks you if you’re really happy and you just let out a confused cry. And that’s ok. That’s enough for that moment.

Inside each of us lies an innate longing for everything to be ok. And anything we can latch onto to show us that things are going to look up, get better, be ok… we cling to, perhaps for comfort, perhaps as futile attempts to block out change. To hold on when we should really let go. Sometimes I just want more than a verse that states, “but I’ve given you a future and hope.” I need more than that. I need to see, oh how I want to see. Oh how I want more assurance. Because everything inside of me screams, begs, demands for everything to be ok. And the longer I can’t see how it’s all going to be ok if I make this decision, or if that happpens, or if this occurs, the more I pine for assurance, signs, and control. Because everything seems so out of my control sometimes and quite frankly God,  sometimes it seems like you’re up there doing nothing.

And so some days, we find ourselves in Churches or other places of worship. I wonder sometimes, for every service I went to at that megachurch back in college, or at that Bible study event filled with a bunch of people smiling, talking about praying, and Evangelizing, and all that joy-in-the-Lord-is-our-strength stuff… was just a show. A bunch of BS. A bunch of people, but certainly not all, who were too afraid to speak of the monsters in their closets, the toilet paper on their shoes. A bunch of people who walk around “happy,” but deep down feel far from the abundant life to which we’re invited. A secretly empty population walking around just hoping to emulate a veneer of “the good Christian.” No. That would be a tragedy. My, my I don’t think we were ever created for the pretending and the “everything’s fine,” and the pity-filled, “Oh I’ll pray for you-s.” We were never meant to, perhaps, smile at every single worship service. What we were made for is community, authentic community. We were invited in, promised with, the opportunity to be a part of a community that says we’ll share our bread and our cup and your tears and my tears and together, we’ll taste something so rich and beautiful, we won’t understand why we ever used to settle for less– the excessive smiling and covering up of pain and doubt.

I know I can be a cynic, but I do know that not everyone of these circles are pretentious. And maybe all those people I saw were joyful and happy in the Lord. Maybe every single one of them was. Maybe.

I just wish I had more influences in my life then like I do now where we sit down at lunch and cry in front of each other. And talk about what depression meds we’ve been on. Where we admit that we too aren’t so sure about the messages we’ve been reiterated about hell or gender or any of those things that Jesus doesn’t really talk a whole lot about. And then where we get really excited and creative about all the ways in which we can find new ways to love, which Jesus talks a whole lot about. More people who go to counseling too and we laugh about how crazy we can be. More one on one conversations in which the two of us admit that we actually have no idea where we’re going with life right now or where this journey is taking us. More people who knew that Jesus could be worshipped on top of a hay bale as you and a friend live out his words to “learn from the birds” as they migrate Southbound, in strength and beauty, letting out a few drops of poo too. Lucky them; they don’t have to worry about the toilet paper-shoe part.

I’m grateful for all of the people in my life who’ve shed away their false layers, remaining open and transparent, as if secretly giving me permission to drop by guard and do the same. I’m grateful for these moments of brokenness in which God stops me, has my complete attention because I’m now shivering and crying alone in my room. “Why do you cause such tears to fall from my eyes and why this pain in my heart!?” I implore You. Though hard to recognize in the moment, I know it’s possible to choose to perceive these tears as a gift. I know Your words to be true when you hold my hand and whisper back, “Because I love you. And there is something good to come from this mess, but you won’t be able to see it yet.”  Some pains are just a part of this world; events that God never intended, but will warmly hold your hand and cry with you, yes, that’s His/Her hands embracing you. There are those other pains that grow- the consequences of our own actions or in-actions- and God looks you in the eye, puts a hand on your shoulder and says, “My child. Is this the only way you’ll slow down? Is this the only way I can gain your full attention before you hurt yourself even more?” And S/He swoops and breathes hope into our breaking hearts that things won’t always be this way. I just can’t expect to see these moments disappear if I don’t start dealing with the broken pieces I’ve tried to hide under my bed, or under my seat, or in my private thought life that no one but God can access. It’s as if S/he enters in, and takes you by the hand, and says, “Well go on now!” Cry. Mourn. Confess. Forgive. Heal. But refuse to sucumb to the notion that you’ll never get through this,” whatever the “this” happens to be at that moment.

Brokenness is a powerful tool for change. Even though as a kid in middle school youth group, I would sing, “Brokenness, brokenness is what I long for,” I would never ask for it to happen to me, willingly. But every time it does, I am always amazed at how God uses it to reveal something new about who S/He is, who I am, and where I still harbor my insecurities. God uses it to show us we’re stronger than we think we are if we would just face whatever it is that won’t stop pestering and festering.

And so tonight my candlelight is still burning. And I’m still feeling a bit of that brokenness and confusion about where and when this mess will intersect with beauty, but I do know this: I am not as alone as I initially felt I was. We have a God that will keep us from the lie we’re alone in those times of brokenness and healing. There is a God who can create something good out of something so hard, or ugly, or untimely, or even as trivial and embarrassing as toilet paper on our shoes.

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26. (I’m Still a Dreamer)

I had a conversation on a plane last week with a woman who lamented, “I just feel like I haven’t accomplished anything and I’m 65 years old.” This woman, mind you, runs her own business, volunteers with her Church, has raised 3 daughters, is active in the lives of her grandkids, and has poured out her painful experience of divorce to support other friends who’ve walked the same crestfallen lines.

“I thought I’d be married by now,” I heard another friend say.

“I thought I would have been more successful at this point in my life.”

“I thought I would have accomplished more by now.”

Do you hear voices you know in those sentiments? Have you ever felt that way?

I turned 26 a few weeks ago. From the get go, I knew it would be a hard number for me. Throughout college, I talked non-stop of serving in the Peace Corps in Africa post-college and then attending grad school immediately after. “I kinda know what I’m doing with the next four years, or so, at least,” I shared with a friend a few weeks out from college graduation. “I’ll spend two years overseas and then two years in grad school, and by that time, gosh, I’ll be 26!” I remember exclaiming, and wow, did 26 seem much older then.

Peace Corps was my dream. My passion. The thing that drove me to put all my energy into swimming Division 1 athletics now, because one day I would be on a plane headed off to Africa. I saw the faces of women and girls I met on a short term trip back when I was 20 in Botswana. I dreamed of meeting more of those animated smiles. I scribbled “Peace Corps” all over notebooks, especially my senior year, when I was tired of learning about people and just wanted to be out in the vast, wide open world with people. I’d dream about which country I’d get selected for. I poured over University of Denver’s Masters in International Human Rights program with vigor, glancing on their website when I should have been writing papers. Life seemed big, seemed open, seemed exciting and filled with possibilities and wonder.

Until that stopped.

It was January 20, 2010, 10 minutes before the close of business on the day before I was supposed to leave for South Africa with Peace Corps. I had knots in my throat all day and stared at the phone until 4:50 PM, pacing my room with trepidation, sadness, loss, fear, and most notably, uncertainty. My mental health had taken a downward turn. During my sophomore year of college, I developed anxiety for the first time in my life. I began to withdraw from my daily activities, including friendships, then entered in anxiety’s menace counterpart: depression. Throughout college, I attended a couple of clinical counseling sessions (but couldn’t afford to do a series of consecutive sessions that would have enabled me to really address my issues) and relied on my anxiety/depression medication and prescription sleeping pills. It was something I hoped would get better, would go away. I didn’t think it would turn into something that would take me away from the dream I’d been building.

But it did, and I made that painful phone call to say I wasn’t going to be leaving tomorrow. After receiving a few minutes of condolences and logistical instructions (“You can expect your passport to be mailed back to you in approximately 4-6 weeks”), I bawled my eyes out. My dream lie crushed, broken, smashed on the floor, like a million photographs shredded into one thousand pieces, all within a matter of a 5 minute phone call.

Now what?

First thing was to schedule an appointment to see a psychiatrist. It was the best gift I ever spent on myself. Through medication and  counseling, I began to gain new footing and spent my days writing cover letter after cover letter, wondering if anyone would even read the text over which I labored.

But sure enough, I had a job interview one long month later, and within two weeks, was hired as an HIV research assistant for a start date in April, giving me one whole month to re-focus, re-gain strength, and most importantly, breathe in the beauty of the spring air around me underneath the solace of Magnolia trees.

So many wonderful things have happened over the past four years; things I could have never foreseen at 22 when I said “no” to my Peace Corps dream. I spent 10 days in Cambodia with a women’s advocacy group. I began weekly therapy sessions, finally able to crawl out from underneath the rubble I felt like I created. I began writing and even got a few articles published. My family celebrated my grandmother’s 90th birthday party, bringing together all of my cousins who are scattered across the US.

But I knew 26 would still bring back memories of realizing that I never accomplished the life goals I had for myself at 22.

Which begs the question…

What do we do when our dreams get smashed? When your dreams are taken from you? When your dreams become trampled upon, left for dead? When that gaping whole in your heart where your dream once was pangs with emptiness and longing for the dream to return?

To find that out, I went back to water, my first love.

I headed out to a reservoir with one of my best friends on my birthday, gathering small rocks and stones scattered along the shoreline. We wrote each of our regrets, fears, worries, and uncertainties on the rocks with a sharpie. All of the things we needed to make peace with. The things we thought we would have done by now- the way it was “supposed” to turn out– and we tossed each and every one in the water. Sunk them. Skipped them. Hurled them like a shotput, letting all of the shame, disappointment, and fear of the future go with the rocks we now released into the water.

It was a holy moment.

A freeing moment.

To acknowledge crushed dreams and to affirm that my dreaming spirit never died; it just got revamped.

The thing I’m learning about dreams is that they are changeable, moldable, adaptable. They are resilient, yet flexible. True dreams offer life, not shame. They guide you but don’t harness you in. True dreams don’t immobilize. They recognize the wind and waves, and move with you, not against you. A passionate current that allows you to be washed over and over again with hope.

It’s that hope I think about when the Bible talks about “turning swords into ploughshares.” I’ve always been fascinated by the symbolism of taking something negative and turning it into something positive, useful, something better and more beautiful. I think that’s what God longs to do with dreams that never came into fruition. To take our crushed spirit and set us on a new trajectory, one that is more open, and free, and ever-passionate. One that accepts that things change, and don’t turn out the way we think they are “supposed to.” Ones that don’t feel too heavy because we can hold onto them tightly enough to put in our blood, sweat, and tears, but loosely enough to let the light in, let in air, let in matter, creativity, open-mindedness, and acceptance.

Right now, I say I want to get married sometime in my 30s and adopt a child in my 40s. But I hear a little bit of my obstinate, so-sure 22 year old self in there. I’m learning that dreams change, including timelines, and to not get so hell-bent on insisting things turn out the way I want them to right now, because who knows, that 22 year old girl who was sooo sure of the future has learned a thing or two now.

And so what about you?

It doesn’t matter if you’re 26 or 36 or 96 or too afraid or too scared.
Your dream is still there.

Oh sure, it may have changed shape since you first dreamed it up, but there’s still something tugging at your heart, calling you into life each day.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve said “no” to opportunities that you just weren’t ready for.

You still have the heart of a dreamer and that can never be taken from you.

May we have the fortitude to express our disappointment in not accomplishing what we thought we would, without shaming ourselves.

May you have eyes to see the amazing things you have done, though perhaps not your main dreams, the things that have shaped and molded you, and given meaning to your life.

May we come to understand that dreams shift, dreams change, and may our hearts be open to new directions, confident that there is something bigger going on here, things that if we were to see ahead of time, all at once, we could hardly contain ourselves in joy.

I’m 26 today…
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… and I’m still a dreamer.

                                  

   

     

          Have you ever lost a dream? What was that process like?
             How did you gain a new vision for your life?

A Love Letter From God In The Midst of Confusion ((Part II))

Just some words of peace and love that I imagine God whispers in our ears in the mist of confusion or change. You are that Dear Child of God.

 We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
—T.S. Eliot
       

Dear Child of God,

Together, you and I have journeyed these times through and through. Every time it seems as though you face a new intersection, it’s tempting to think you’ll be alone, but let me assure you, you will never be truly alone. I will be with you always and I will send you love and kindness through the people around you. I promise. Choose to encourage yourself in the moments of un-joy that I am orchestrating things you just have no idea about yet. Yes, I will have beautiful new opportunities ahead of you.

I know it’s tempting to avoid and ignore feelings of pain, confusion, discomfort, anxiety. But there’s something bigger here, if you dare to look deeper in your bravest moment. I hope you can look back on my faithfulness and realize that every time you run away instead of facing the uncertainty of things unknown, you lose out on an opportunity for growth. There’s something here for you. Look again. Too big? Too scary? Gently lift the covers away from your face while I hold your hand. Child, while I wipe away the exhaustion from your face and plant a tender kiss on your forehead, I pray you’ll free your tarried mind from the burden of “why.” I can see the road ahead. You cannot. I know that frustrates you. But when you free yourself from the burden of having to have it all figured out now, have all the “whys” answered, you create space for my peace to enter in. It yearns to have room in your heart, your chest, your eyes, your smile, your soul. But inside of you, it’s crowded with the “why’s” and the secret fears that I already know of. There’s no room in the inn of your heart but I will find a way to make room to slip into your soul, through the cracks of your despondency as I melt your fears away like the wax from your midnight burning candle flickering in your dark room right now. I’ve come to bring light to your darkness. Let me in.

I know you’re afraid of rejection, of not being accepted by the people you meet. That your task-oriented, introverted personality tempts you to avoid investing in deep relationships. I assure you. Be yourself. I will give you new experiences of my love as you meet new people, find friends of freedom that you’ve been longing for. But you need community. And I want to show myself faithful to you in this arena. So leave the house. Put the keys in the ignition. Go meet someone new and get lost in their story. It will help shape or touch yours, anyway. Each of you have something to teach the world. When you’re feeling lost or confused or feel as though you can barely figure out how to make peace with the changes coming your away, check in on a friend and realize that they’re probably going through some of these same things too. Choose to be in it together. There’s going to be days that hurt, break, make you cry out in the dark. So speak gently to one another. Speak love to one another. Speak hope to one another. Speak of the strength with which I clothe you.

I know you’re trying to figure out where I’m leading you. I know it might seem like the steps you have to take are a giant waste of time. Just be faithful to the journey. Don’t get too caught up in it. Just go, one step at time. That a girl (that a boy). See, it’s bright and beautiful out there, isn’t it? I promise not to waste your years. The only moments you waste are those when you step away from Me and get distracted by your discontentment but sit there, on your floor, too afraid to try something different, to make a change. I see where you’re trying. I honor all tries, attempts at trying, successes and failures. Pick up your bones and shake the dust of your feet, child. Your shoes have some walking to do! To new places, to new faces, to the things I’ve put on your heart, if only you’d be courageous enough to follow through.

So go listen to that still small voice in your heart, whatever it’s telling you. Maybe it’s time to take another stab at your studies. Or go grab your bike and get on the open road. Or take that flight. Or meet up with that new friend you’re fond of. Or apply for that new position that keeps resurfacing in your mind. And when all of your life and career and relationships and choices seem to jumble into mass confusion, wanting your full attention, don’t forget to head outside and take a look up at my Pleiades. You know the Big Dipper looks awfully close to the kite you flew last spring. Trace its outlines with your finger toward the sky. Feel the edges of each star from 50 million miles away. My hands crafted these lights out here, and now, as you finish tracing the shapes of the stars in the air, pull those hands in close to your heart, for I am holding them.

I’m here.hampton beach

I’m here.

I love you, all of you, every day.

Your Maker

Four Letters on a T-Shirt

I yawned sleepily and opened my drawer to find a bed shirt to sleep in tonight. I pulled out the first one I could find. It was a familiar one. A golden yellow cotton t-shirt with only four large, bold, … Continue reading