Where I’ve Been for the Last 4 Months

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Oh, it’s good to be back!

For those of you who follow my other blog regularly, you may have noticed some changes in historical content, as well as some major radio silence since my last post in October 2017. This is certainly an unusual lapse in content for me, and I’m thrilled to be able to resume my regular posting as of today.

Let’s rewind a bit for context.

Back in early November, I was doing life-as-usual and absolutely owning the first few days of NaNoWriMo when I got a phone call from one of my previous employers. Collaborative Strategies, Inc. (CSI) is a St. Louis-based consulting firm with an executive search practice; I supported them back in 2016 as a member of the Search Team prior to starting my career coaching business. My colleague Sarah called to request my services and support as the Search Team underwent a staffing transition.

My response was a resounding yes!

Yes, that meant setting down my epic NaNo novel progress and putting writing on the back burner. Yes, there were sacrifices involved and yes, I went a little batty for 4 months. My house got dirty, friends. The Christmas tree is still up. But it was absolutely the right decision.

As I worked with CSI, there was a mutual feeling of fit. I wasn’t the right person to fill the permanent open seat, because I love my career coaching business and am eager to continue serving my clients in that capacity. Even so, we explored what it might look like for me to continue my partnership with CSI in a different capacity, and I’m pretty stoked about the results.

As of February 2019, I serve CSI’s Search Team in a limited part-time/remote role. My primary responsibilities include:

  • Reviewing applications and making preliminary decisions
  • Sourcing qualified candidates and pitching relevant opportunities
  • Conducting preliminary phone interviews
  • Executing reference checks

All of my responsibilities are candidate-facing, meaning that I primarily work with candidates in consideration for a given search, rather than working with the client organization that is hiring the new position. Basically, I get to do the dream role that I would’ve designed myself in my wildest dreams! I love candidates, and I’m so thankful that I now have this additional channel for supporting and interacting with individuals in job transition.

So what does this mean for my career coaching clients? All good news. Check out the details on my career coaching blog.

Yes, I’m writing this blog on a different website. And yes, I’m now sending you back to the other blog for coaching-specific content. Stick with me for a minute, and this madness will all make sense!

If you’ve been reading my other blog for awhile, you may have noticed that some prior blog posts have fallen off of the archives. Don’t worry — that content isn’t gone forever! Posts have just been shuffled around a bit.

In an effort to better serve my clients and tailor my writing to the correct audiences, I’ve separated professional/career coaching content and personal content. You can continue to find helpful blog posts about job transition and career development on my business site.

For those of you looking to follow my personal blog that covers a variety of topics, especially authentic, faith-based musings, I hope you’ll enjoy this revived blog at Calling All Courageous. You can sign up for updates via WordPress. All of my historical personal content has been copied over from the other site, so nothing is lost in transition.

I appreciate your continued interest in this content, and your comments are always a tremendous blessing as I continue to share transparently about life, faith, marriage, friendships, work, travel, writing, and more. My goal on this site is to model courageous vulnerability, and to empower others–especially women–to do the same.

————

So that’s the scoop! I’m so thrilled to report that the radio silence is over, and that my partnership with CSI begins a new stage in my business efforts. I’m particularly excited that I have this revived blog to really unleash the personal writing that I’ve somewhat held back on historically. Thanks for sticking with me over the last few months, and as always, don’t hesitate to drop a note in the comments section below. It’s always good to hear from you!

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A Lesson from Patrick Rothfuss

For the last five weeks or so, I haven’t been able to write.

Okay, technically I’ve written a little. One day last week, I did a freewriting session to dump out all the crap in my brain. And after that, on Saturday morning, I made a list of blog posts I could write to reflect on my upcoming 30th birthday. I scribbled out a few to-do lists, shot off some emails, and did my usual writing on the client side.

Still, I haven’t really been able to write. I haven’t touched my novel draft, or my short story in-progress. I haven’t sat down and brainstormed new ideas.

But that’s not the worst part.

Five weeks isn’t an alarmingly long period of time to have trouble writing. We’ve had some things going on…family health stuff, routine disruptions. Life happens, you know? But I didn’t see it that way. Instead, I stared at myself in the mirror and came to the daily conclusion that I can’t do this. I am failing. And it’s never going to get better.

I accepted the fact that I wasn’t writing, and adopted it as a rule of life. And that conclusion left me feeling–on top of everything else I was feeling–like a complete waste of space.

Then today happened.

I hopped over to Goodreads to add a book to my “Want to Read” shelf. While I was there, a blog post from Patrick Rothfuss caught my eye.

Now, if you don’t know who Patrick Rothfuss is, you should. He has written an astonishingly beautiful fantasy series that is in-progress: The Kingkiller Chronicles. The first two books are published along with a novella (#2.5). If you haven’t read Patrick’s work, I dare you to go get the first book (The Name of the Wind) and tell me it isn’t well-written. You might not dig the genre or specifics or whatever, but it is an indisputable fact that Patrick Rothfuss knows how to write. The series is one of my favorites, and like many other readers, I eagerly await the day when he brings the trilogy to a close.

Anyway, on to the blog post. I don’t typically read Patrick’s blog (or anyone else’s really), but this one caught my eye. It’s titled “A blog, if only barely,” and in it, Patrick talks about why he hasn’t been posting much. He shares feelings of exhaustion, busy-ness, and a lack of motivation. He talks about how lonely he is, how dark his moods have been, and how discouraging it is to feel like he doesn’t have anything good to say.

I read the post with wide eyes. It was like living the lyrics to “Killing Me Softly,” minus the crippling fear of exposure.

Instead, I felt relief.

Of course it sucks that Patrick is in a bad place–I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone. But I was relieved because this amazing, inspired author whose work I respect is in a familiar place. He described something like the valley that I’ve been in this summer, and even with Patrick’s massive reader base, he’s still willing to write and put himself out there. He’s willing to talk about the dark crap, even if it feels useless to do so.

Patrick’s words were exactly the kick in the pants I needed to write this blog post.

A few days ago, I was crying in the dining room, trying to explain how I’m feeling to Andrew. I told him I hate socializing right now, because I have nothing to say. People ask “How are you?” and the only honest answer is unacceptable in 99% of social settings. They ask “How’s your writing going?” and I just want to crawl under the table and die. Outside of my dearest, inner-circle friends, I can’t respond to “How are you?” with the truth.

Even now, with this lesson from Patrick Rothfuss at heart, I wouldn’t answer the question honestly in most social settings. A dinner party is no place to dump my problems on the table, especially not with just anyone. I may be in a valley, but I still don’t want to be a party pooper.

But my blog…well, it’s mine. This is my space, and the only people who read this blog do it because they choose to. They know the content can get real, and they enter in anyway.

So on my blog, at least for today, I am choosing to tell the truth.

Things are pretty shitty. I haven’t been writing. My overall self-esteem is in the toilet, and that’s extending outside of my professional life. I drew out a literal Venn Diagram of potential mental health concerns that are contributing to my total absence of motivation, productivity, and self-esteem. I frequently stare at the computer screen, paralyzed by this false but prevailing catch-22: it doesn’t matter if I write, yet it doesn’t matter if I don’t write. I know that concept is a lie, but it paralyzes me even so.

I’m working on all of this. I’m actively seeking solutions for the mess that’s going on in my heart and mind. But I think the most important thing to say right now is that things are bad. But I choose to sit here and write about it anyway, even though it’s awkward and exposing.

This may seem to you (and me) like a small victory, but I’m still calling it a win. Thank you for reading. Thank you for all of the times you’ve told me that my writing matters, that matter. You wonderful people are helping to sustain me in this season, and I could not be more thankful.

One of the not-really-writing things that I wrote in the last week was a Facebook status on primary election day. It said, “Your voices matter.” I can’t help but grin just thinking of it! How ridiculous and mind-boggling is it that I can value everyone else’s voices, but fail to appropriately value my own?

Cheers to the catharsis of speaking truth, my friends, even when the truth is less than shiny. And an extra special shoutout to Patrick Rothfuss for modeling vulnerability when the words are dark, and yet still worth sharing. And cheers to you, Patrick. May life get a little less crappy for us both, hopefully soon.

In Defense of Sad Songs

About a year ago, I was at the theatre with Andrew and a couple of friends waiting for Cabaret to begin. I was the only one in our group who had seen the show before, and I was pumped; I adore Cabaret. Given the content and what I knew of our friends’ preferences, I warned everyone that it was a sad show, and a tad dark.

My friend turned to me, her smile evaporating into a grave expression. “Sadder than Les Mis?”

I laughed for a long time, and tried to imagine a sadness scale that peaked at a musical infused with the hope of redemption; I couldn’t begin to fathom such a perspective, but was absolutely delighted for her.

“Yes, sadder than Les Mis,” I choked out. “A lot sadder than Les Mis.”

More conversation ensued, and at some point my friend asked, “Why do you like Cabaretif it’s so sad?”

“I like a lot of sad shows, and sad songs in general.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Really? Why?”

Why indeed? It wasn’t the first time someone had raised an eyebrow over my preference for sad songs, but it was the first time someone directly asked my why. At the time, I had no idea how to answer her. I stumbled through a piece-meal explanation, and ultimately, I came up empty-handed. But the question lingered in my mind, and has buzzed around my brain ever since. This is my attempt at unearthing a thorough—albeit belated—response.

——

My friend was not completely off-base when she said Les Mis is sad.

If I have it right, I was eight or nine years old when I saw Les Miserables on stage for the first time. Our family had a deep-rooted obsession with the story, particularly on my dad’s side of the family, so taking an eight-year-old to see a production with prostitutes in it was perfectly rational. After all, we already played the soundtrack on repeat at home, and regularly wore out the VHS of the 10th Anniversary concert edition.

So I went to the Murat Theatre in Indianapolis, and sat perched in my seat with my feet tucked up under me for a better view. I hardly dared to breathe lest I interrupt the story unfolding on stage. When it was over, rumor has it that I turned to my mom and asked, “Can we watch it again?” As if it was a VHS tape with a rewind function.

Even before I was old enough to understand the complicated adult themes explored in Les Miserables, I was drawn to the music, and specifically to Eponine and Fantine. Something about those women and their pain sent an arrow of truth into my tiny, innocent little heart. I felt understood, known, and heard, even though I had no idea why. Their ballads full of longing and sadness confirmed something inside me, a question buried in myself that I couldn’t quite pinpoint. All I knew is that the affirmation felt good, and thus I clung to the music of Les Mis as if it were a part of my very self.

— —

As a child of the 90s, I was caught up in the boy band fever that characterized the decade. Later on, I claimed allegiance to the Backstreet Boys, but my first boy band crush was Taylor, the middle brother of Hanson. What a devoted fan I was! I saw Hanson in concert, wore out VHS tapes that catalogued their musical journey, and listened to the CDs religiously. And you know what? I stand by that preference as a solid one. How often do pop singers write their own music AND play their own instruments?

There was something more compelling about Hanson than the cute boys and upbeat tunes. Yes, “Mmbop” was catchy as hell, but it wasn’t my favorite of Hanson’s songs. Instead, alone in my room, I played “Weird” on repeat. Looking at the lyrics now, it’s astonishing how much truth was packed into lyrics written by teenage boys:

Isn’t it hard
Standing in the rain?
You’re on the verge of going crazy and your heart’s in pain
No one can hear, but you’re screaming so loud
You feel like you’re all alone in a faceless crowd
Isn’t it strange how we all get a little bit weird sometimes?

Sitting on the side
Waiting for a sign
Hoping that my luck will change
Reaching for a hand that can understand
Someone who feels the same

When you live in a cookie-cutter world, being different is a sin
So you don’t stand out
But you don’t fit in
Weird, whoa, oh

Yes, the lyrics are drenched in teenage angst. But they also speak to the common human experience of longing to connect, to be seen and accepted as we are. That is a desire that lives in hearts of all ages, regardless of musical preference, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not.

At age 10, I couldn’t name that hole in my heart. But I knew Hanson’s lyrics were calling out to the empty space, and for that, they earned my undying devotion until I moved on to my next phase.

——

Music and theatre were natural outlets for me as an emotional, over-achieving adolescent. I auditioned for roles in community theatre productions as well as school shows, and I committed myself fully to every cast and role. I felt known in the theatre scene, delighted to be a part of a zany family that shared a common passion. We pretended to be someone else on stage together, and conveyed stories that ranged from absurd to frivolous to heartfelt.

One summer in high school, I attended a theatre camp at Indiana University. For a week, we had workshops in acting, movement, and musical theatre led by students and faculty at IU. We slept in the campus dorms, rehearsed in the common areas in our spare time, and gushed about our dream roles. My memories of that week are fond, brimming with energy, drama, and junk food.

Our final performance capped off the weel with a series of scenes and presentations for our friends and family. There were comedic and dramatic scenes, monologues, and musical theatre excerpts. Hell, they cast me as Elphaba in a scene from Wicked! You might expect that to have been my crowning moment, but it wasn’t. Instead, I relished the movement presentation, a choreographed routine set to “Evaporated” by Ben Folds Five. It wasn’t a dance, per se. It was more an opportunity to immerse oneself in the heart of a song, to enhance the message of the lyrics through movement and acting.

Here I stand, sad and free
I can’t cry, I can’t see
What I’ve done
Oh, God, what have I done?

Don’t you know I’m numb, man? No I can’t feel a thing at all
‘Cause it’s all smiles and business these days and I’m indifferent to the loss

And I’ve faith that there’s a soul somewhere that’s leading me around
I wonder if she knows which way is down

Here I stand, sad and free
And I can’t cry and I can’t see
What I’ve done
Oh, God, what have I done?

And I poured my heart out
I poured my heart out
It evaporated, see

Blind man on a canyon’s edge of a panoramic scene
Or maybe I’m a kite that’s flying high and random dangling a string
Or slumped over in a vacant room, head on a stranger’s knee
I’m sure back home they think I’ve lost my mind

Here I stand, sad and free
I can’t cry and I can’t see
What I’ve done
Oh, God, what have I done?

We rehearsed that movement routine over, and over, and over leading up to the final presentation, and I never tired of it. I never tired of the song, of pouring my experiences and emotions out into the world with a freaking fantastic, heart-wrenching song as the medium. I savored the moments in rehearsal or on stage with my fellow actors, relishing the unity as their emotions mingled with my own, and knowing that we were connected in our longing. It was pure magic, and if I could step into a rehearsal room with them right now and do it again, I would be able to recall every step.

— —

My junior year of high school was one of my best, but as it came to a close, I wrestled with the reality that I would be left behind. Almost all of my friends were seniors, and I was being abandoned, restrained from the growth and freedom I so desired, only to be held back in a juvenile prison, a waiting room for my future to begin. My friends were off to college in various states. My boyfriend was graduating and moving out of town with the rest of them. Half of my choir friends would be gone, and I feared all of these friends would leave without knowing the full measure of my love for them. The ache felt trapped in my chest, and I finally released it through a reliable channel: I wrote. In that case, I wrote a song.

The first draft of the song poured out of me in one sitting, like a dam bursting. I fine-tuned the details for weeks, but it was mostly finished from the moment it hit the page. The compulsion to communicate how desperately I wanted to go with them, to honor their relational impact on my life…it was too strong to resist. The emotions could not be contained by my body, so the music was born.

The song wasn’t an award-winner, but it served its purpose. I invited the seniors to my open mic performance at the end of the school year and made sure they knew it was important they attend. I sang my song, and I cried through the end of it:

I know that you must go, my friends
Your time here is running out
Soon, you’ll start on a great journey
Go the distance on an unknown route
And though I’ll thank God for each one of you every waking day
It’s so hard to say…goodbye.

Though in time you will be gone, and I will remain
Here you’ll always stay, yes you’ll always stay inside.

I remember one friend’s response in particular. Her eyes were wide as she hugged me, surprised and awed that someone felt that much for her. She was astonished by the depth of sadness I expressed, and the high value I placed on our friendship. She cried. I cried. We connected at a level that I had no other way to facilitate, and I felt a sweet catharsis in the confidence that my friends knew. They would leave, yes, but they would leave having seen me, and having known me fully, with my heart open wide for them to read.

— —

My undergraduate years were a low point in my life, a period of darkness and confusion that I hesitate to recollect. I was lost, depressed, dealing with undiagnosed anxiety, and I was a slave to my own foolish decisions. There were many times when I felt so lonely and lost that I couldn’t begin to find a way to ask for help. I couldn’t find the energy, the words, or even a general direction to crawl in.

I would wander the campus at night, find a secluded spot to sit, and cry. I didn’t know who I wanted to find me; I only knew that I desperately needed to be found. With a heavy heart, I sat on shadowy benches or at the top of a fire escape, and I waited for a nameless someone who never came. The lyrics of “Grey Street” by Dave Matthews Band were my only companion, the voice that spoke into my pain and said, Yes, I know. It wasn’t enough to make everything better, but it was better than feeling utter hopelessness and anonymity.

There’s an emptiness inside her
And she’d do anything to fill it in
And though it’s red blood bleeding from her now
It’s more like cold blue ice in her heart
She feels like kicking out all the windows
And setting fire to this life
She would change everything about her
Using colors bold and bright
But all the colors mix together
To grey
And it breaks her heart
It breaks her heart
To grey

——

My longest dating relationship pre-husband ended in my junior year of college. We’d dated for several years, spanning crucial formative years for me as a teen becoming a young adult. I had no idea who I was without that young man in my life, or how to move forward and find myself in his absence.

After we broke up, I spent the next summer working as a tour guide at my college. The Admissions office was located in a large building, down the hall from an auditorium. That auditorium sat several hundred people, but was rarely in use during the day, especially during the summer. And there was a grand piano on the stage.

On my lunch break, or even on a longer bathroom break when the day was dragging, I would creep into the shadowy auditorium. Soft light filtered in through stained glass windows along the sides of the room. I crept down the center aisle, just far enough to crane my neck out and see if the light was on in the balcony sound booth. If I saw the light on, I retreated immediately, my heart racing in fear of being caught. But more often than not, the light was off, and the auditorium was vacant and welcoming.

The grand piano on the stage called to me without ceasing. As soon as I knew I was alone, I raced down the aisle and up the steps to the stage. To this day, I still have no idea if I was breaking any rules by playing that piano. They didn’t lock the key cover, and they could have. Other pianos on campus had locks like that. The absence of a lock was the only permission I needed.

Now that I think about it, I’ve never claimed to be stealthy or subtle. The room wasn’t sound proof, and thus the music must have poured into the hallway. The light booth guy probably caught me in there on multiple occasions, and let me stay and play my song out of quiet heroism. Maybe he listened to me sing. Maybe he’d lost someone, too.

I don’t remember learning the song, the lyrics, or the chords. All I remember is sneaking into the auditorium and sending my voice out into the empty space. Daily, for an entire summer, I sang the same song without variation.

I don’t know if our fate’s already sealed
This day’s a spinning circus on a wheel
And I’m ill with the thought of your kiss
Coffee-laced, intoxicating on her lips

Shut it out
I’ve got no claim on you now
I’m not allowed
To wear your freedom down, no

Is there a chance, a fragment of light
At the end of the tunnel, a reason to fight?
Is there a chance you may change your mind
Or are we ashes and wine?

And I’ll tear myself away
If that’s what you need
Then there’s nothing left to say

But… is there a chance, a fragment of light
At the end of the tunnel, a reason to fight?
Is there a chance you may change your mind
Or are we ashes…
Reduced to ashes…
Are we just ashes…?

I never wanted to stop singing that song, even though it was painful to do so. At some point it got easier to sit down and release the words, a ritual. Eventually, much farther along than I’d care to admit, I was surprised to realize that I’d stopped sneaking into the auditorium. One day, I woke up and didn’t need the song anymore. Lyrics carried me through a summer, and then released me into the next part of my journey with well wishes and a healed heart.

——

Andrew snuck into my life like a ninja; neither one of us remembers meeting the other. We got to know one another from a distance for quite awhile, and then started dating. After a few months, I broke up with him because I wasn’t ready for him yet. A few months later, we were friends, and then we became good friends. About a year after our first round of dating, I humbled myself and told him I changed my mind. I asked him to give us another shot. By the grace of God, he said yes.

One of the defining moments in my relationship with Andrew happened that second time around in our dating journey. We were sitting on the couch in his condo, just talking. He’d asked me a question about physical intimacy, about whether or not there were any triggers from my past that he might not anticipate, any otherwise-innocent words or actions he should avoid to protect my heart. What a man I have!

In response, I laughed. “You couldn’t sink low enough, you’re too good a person. Just don’t, I don’t know…don’t lock me in a bathroom and make me do anything I don’t want to do. We should be good, then!”

I laughed again.

His face fell, and his eyes widened. “Someone did that to you?”

My brow furrowed, but I nodded.

Tears filled his eyes.

Andrew is not a crier. I can easily recall the few occasions when he has cried, but none of those moments touched my heart as this one did. He cried over a passing mention of my sexual abuse history, a detail that was minor to me and easy to dismiss. He communicated anger that someone would treat me that way, of course, but mostly he shared a profound experience of grief. His sadness mirrored mine, and nobody had ever responded that way before. I looked at him and saw someone who knew me, a kind, gentle man who understood and cared for my heart. In a way, he sang a sad song, one I thought nobody knew the lyrics for except me. He saw how much my past hurt me, and his heart said “Yes, beloved, I know.”

— —

Our first year of marriage was hijacked by some really awful external crap; everything but our marriage blew up in our faces. The biggest bomb that was dropped in our lives was a friendship that turned manipulative, and then spiritually abusive. We were submerged in that toxicity for about a year. Afterwards, we tried to pick up the pieces, but we didn’t have the energy. We were in survival mode, and it was miserable.

Because someone had used the beautiful, perfect Word of God as a weapon against me, going to church was hard. We tried going anyway. I sat in the service while people sang songs of praise, clapping their hands and dancing for joy. Particularly at that church, I did not belong. There was little if no emphasis on the broken people in the room, or opportunities for lament built into the structure of the service. It was deeply isolating, being heartbroken and wounded in a sea of smiling people. Being there wasn’t helpful. Sometimes I cried through the entire service, so we stopped attending altogether.

Outside of church, left to my own devices, I found the song I was hungering for. ”Jesus I My Cross Have Taken” became my daily plea. On a regular impulse, I would grab my guitar and choke out the hymn through tears, a groaning prayer that I knew the Spirit would complete on my behalf. It was all I could do to push through the first verses, acknowledge the promise of suffering for followers of Christ, and look ahead to the restoration and healing that I knew God would deliver some day.

Jesus, I my cross have taken,
All to leave and follow Thee.
Destitute, despised, forsaken,
Thou from hence my all shall be.
Perish every fond ambition,
All I’ve sought or hoped or known.
Yet how rich is my condition!
God and heaven are still my own.

Let the world despise and leave me,
They have left my Savior, too.
Human hearts and looks deceive me;
Thou art not, like them, untrue.
O while Thou dost smile upon me,
God of wisdom, love, and might,
Foes may hate and friends disown me,
Show Thy face and all is bright.

Man may trouble and distress me,
’will but drive me to Thy breast.
Life with trials hard may press me;
Heaven will bring me sweeter rest.
Oh, ’is not in grief to harm me
While Thy love is left to me;
Oh, ’were not in joy to charm me,
Were that joy unmixed with Thee.

Go, then, earthly fame and treasure,
Come disaster, scorn and pain
In Thy service, pain is pleasure,
With Thy favor, loss is gain
I have called Thee Abba Father,
I have stayed my heart on Thee
Storms may howl, and clouds may gather;
All must work for good to me.

Soul, then know thy full salvation
Rise o’er sin and fear and care
Joy to find in every station,
Something still to do or bear.
Think what Spirit dwells within thee,
Think what Father’s smiles are thine,
Think that Jesus died to win thee,
Child of heaven, canst thou repine?

Haste thee on from grace to glory,
Armed by faith, and winged by prayer.
Heaven’’ eternal days before thee,
God’’ own hand shall guide us there.
Soon shall close thy earthly mission,
Soon shall pass thy pilgrim days,
Hope shall change to glad fruition,
Faith to sight, and prayer to praise.

In the midst of brokenness, confusion, anger, complex-PTSD, and spiritual doubt, I found the joy that only the Lord can give. God gifted that joy to me in a way He knew I would be able to receive, even when I was so pissed at Him that I refused to pray or even “let him in the door.” For almost a year, God let me be. He kept a respectful distance and sent a gift by mail, a sad hymn that He knew I needed. I clung to the song, and it carried me through.

— —

I like sad songs because they are honest. There is something unifying and right in collectively acknowledging our pain, our sadness, our longing and our disappointments. I defend sad songs because I am hungry for the acceptance of emotional honesty in our world, and especially in our church.

There is a poisonous trend in our culture that has influenced the culture of the church;  that trend suggests we must be happy, and anything other than happiness and plastered-on gratitude is wrong. Psychologist Susan David describes this as a cultural value of relentless positivity. Her Ted Talk titled “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” is fifteen minutes of gut-punching truth about how toxic our rigid approach to emotion truly is. We’ve characterized valid, normal emotions like sadness and grief as bad! It’s one thing for the secular culture to promote this lie, that we must be happy or we are bad. It is another thing entirely to see that lie infecting the church.

The Christian Church is a body of individuals who follow Jesus and claim Him as Savior. The Bible is the Word of God, and the compass of the church. And what does that Bible tell us? Jesus suffered. Jesus wept. Jesus blessed those who mourn. The Psalms are full of longing and heartache, danger and profound pain. I mean, there is an entire book of the Bible called Lamentations, people! As in lament, “a passionate expression of grief or sorrow.” We are promised that as Christians, we will experience pain and suffering, that we will bear the cross of Christ in this lifetime. Why is the church not leading the way in creating space for people to lament? Why are there so few songs about fear, sadness, pain, loss, regret, anger, and doubt? Why do hurting people feel isolated and exposed when they step in the door of a church?

I mean no offense to any of my friends, or any particular churches I’ve attended. There are good steps being taken in the right direction toward emotional honesty and courageous vulnerability. But it is simply not enough, and it is still too rare for someone to answer “How are you?” with a truthful response on a Sunday morning.

As Susan David mentions in her talk, I’m not anti-happiness!  I celebrate the sunny days and laugh with my loved ones. I praise God for the innumerable blessings in my life, and the joy that cannot be taken from me. But enjoying happiness isn’t a reason to negate the valid and important moments of weeping, aching, and grieving.

Musicians and songwriters have poured their hearts out so that people like me can find consolation when nobody else knows what to say, or how to help. I defend sad songs because they honor the life-giving connection that is established when we share the heaviness of our pain with one another, through our art, our friendship, or our wordless, comforting presence. In today’s world, I will accept that gift of togetherness in the midst of pain, and I will cherish it openly, no matter how unfashionable that may be.

The Power of Having ‘People’

April has been a bit of a bust, friends.

My most recent post was published on April 6 (three weeks ago — yikes!), and on April 7, the following morning, a giant SUV pulled out into the middle of the road to turn left. We were chugging along minding our own business, talking about where to plant the flowers we’d just purchased from the Butterfly House. We were going about 40 MPH, and the SUV driver didn’t look to see us coming.

It was absolutely horrifying. I was driving. The air bags deployed, and the car smelled like it was about to explode. Andrew was a pillar of strength and stability. He took control of the situation, got me out of the car, spoke with the police, and conversed with the irrationally angry guilty party. Meanwhile, I mostly sat on the side of the road shaking and crying. A few angelic strangers stopped and held my hand for a minute, assuring me that everything was going to be fine, and that it was perfectly acceptable to be rattled after something like that. (Bless you, strangers, wherever you are!)

Mercifully, Andrew and I walked away with no major injuries. We’ve definitely experienced some whiplash/muscular discomfort, and I had a first degree burn and bruising on my forearm from the airbag. But we walked away, and it could have been a heck of a lot worse than that.

Nonetheless, car accidents are followed by a MOUNTAIN of grown-up stuff. I spent gobs of time on the phone with various insurance representatives, trying to get everything sorted out. The other party’s insurance company was not cooperating with us. It took almost a week to learn that my car was indeed totaled, and that we would be getting a total loss payout. It took two weeks for me to get a rental car, for a variety of reasons. Finally, we had to involve our own insurance to get everything taken care of on our behalf.

And still, we have yet to close everything out and purchase a new vehicle. The process has been exhausting and time-consuming, and it is super hard not to silently curse the random stranger who pulled out in front of us without looking, inciting this avalanche of crap that landed squarely on my to-do list.

But the biggest ‘damage’ revealed itself more slowly. It wasn’t until later that I realized I was dealing with a variety of PTSD symptoms, and my writing routine was completely shot. I’ve had trouble sleeping, and couldn’t seem to find the motivation to get back into my routine. My anxiety has been off the charts, and I just haven’t had the energy or the capacity to pick myself back up again.

Enter ‘my people.’ Oh, how wonderful it is to have ‘my people!’

I attend a writers’ meet-up once a month, and we had our April meeting earlier this week. The impact on my motivation and capacity was instantaneous.

I spent one hour discussing a writing topic with a group of forty writers, then spent another hour with them in small critique groups. And that was it– that was all I needed. Energy is contagious. I left feeling known, resourced, encouraged, and motivated. I even spent a few minutes in the parking lot with some of my new writing buddies, who convinced me to be brave and submit a piece for critiques next month.

And you know what? I did it. The following morning, I got up, did an hour of edits, and submitted the story for critique. I chose to willingly subject myself to live, public criticism, y’all. They are going to sit there with my story in their hands and tell me everything that’s wrong with it. I can’t say that I’m looking forward to it, but I’m super proud of myself for the decision to enter into that process willingly, arguably sooner than I really need to. That is worth celebrating.

No, the writing group did not make my PTSD evaporate into thin air. But they did give me a boost to get back in the saddle and write. In addition to the story submission, I’ve been able to work on the second draft of my novel, and I’m sitting here writing this blog post with a smile on my face. The sun in shining, the spring breeze is drifting in through the open window in my office, and I feel much better than I have at any point in the last three weeks.

We are not meant to pursue our interests alone. Even for something as individual and private as writing, it is so helpful to have people who get it and understand the process. Without having close relationships with any of them, really, my fellow writers managed to give me a boost and help me out of my rough patch. I can end the month well, and move into May with renewed purpose and restored motivation.

This is a short entry today, but worth stating regardless. To my people: thank you. You know who you are, and I am beyond grateful for you.

To everyone else: if you don’t already have them, be brave and go find your people. In addition to the obvious benefits of friendship and resources, shared-interest people possess a power to encourage and motivate you to a degree that will, quite frankly, blow your mind. Find your people, and hang on to them. The fruit is absolutely worth the search effort.

Transforming Grace

I started attending a local Bible study in December. The study itself has been great, but the social experience has been more than a little mixed. My discomfort has several roots, including the fact that every other woman in my group has children. Also, most of them live in West County, and they find it odd that I can name several tasty restaurants or worthy attractions within the city limits.

But the most significant factor is an experience I’ve had countless times during the past six years. This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in a small group of women who converted to Christianity at age 5, and have grown up in a bubble of legalistic faith.

A couple years ago in a similar group of women, a young southern wife was telling her story. “I wasn’t a bad girl or anything like that! I wasn’t partying, or running around with boys having sex, or drowning in that extreme kind of sin.”

It’s been years, and it still makes my skin crawl to recall her words. It was that exact moment when I determined I would never tell my story in front of that group. Honestly, I felt perfectly, 100% justified in keeping my testimony to myself. And I continued to feel that way in similar situations, for years.

Even early on, when I was a new believer and felt compelled to share God’s work in my life, my closest Christian friends discouraged it. My story wasn’t “clean” enough for public consumption, and it was best to save it for appropriate audiences, they said. Mainly, that meant reserving my story for isolated groups of Christian women. Otherwise, sharing my story would be unsuitable.

But the truth is, my story isn’t mine. Every moment of my life, every twist in the road, every mercy I’ve received, and every horrible decision I’ve made fall under the goodness and sovereignty of God. My life is His story, and I have an obligation to obediently praise His name for bringing me out of darkness, into the light. It doesn’t matter if the story is uncomfortable to share, or if someone takes offense that I’ve walked my unique path. God is glorified when we proclaim His divine work in our lives, and that is what I feel compelled to do today. I pray that God’s work in my life is a blessing to you, and that you are awed by the goodness and magnitude of God’s great love for us as you read.

***

I grew up in a suburb of Indianapolis with a wonderful family. My mom stayed at home with my older brother and me until we were in our teens. Though my dad traveled often for his job, my parents made family time a priority. We ate dinner together almost every evening. Most of our extended family lived in the area as well, so large family gatherings were common occurrences. I spent a lot of time with my paternal grandparents, and I have since come to see them as the Christian foundation of our family.

My parents took us to church from infancy on, albeit to a church which was less than thrilling as a child. It was a small Disciples of Christ church with an older, traditional congregation, and my memories of it are not particularly fond. I remember wearing a lacy dress, sitting in an uncomfortable pew, and doodling on my program in an effort to stay awake. Nonetheless, I attended Sunday school, ate a lot of gummy worms, and was privy to many felt-board Bible stories. It wasn’t a bad spiritual foundation by any means.

When I was eleven, a leadership change at our church resulted in a major split, and our family found ourselves at a completely different church home. The new church was a massive contemporary nondenominational warehouse, and to a pre-teen girl, it was heaven on earth. With a congregation in the thousands, there were hundreds of kids at church each week, and a stellar youth ministry program. In addition to all of that, I was allowed to wear jeans on a Sunday morning. It was paradise.

Unfortunately, the aspects of church that excited me the most had nothing to do with God. Sundays and Wednesdays were social events, places to see and be seen. I was active in small groups, the worship band, and youth retreats, but my heart was not focused on God. Though I knew all of the answers on paper and considered myself to be quite spiritual, I had no grasp of the gospel, or my need for salvation. I performed well in school and in all of my extracurricular activities, and was hopelessly full of myself. I was simply going through the motions of faith without any understanding of my own brokenness.

When I was 13, I went on my first date alone with a boy. The experience of being pursued by a cute guy was a thrilling discovery for me, and I dove into the world of dating. Around that same time, I was severely burned by friends in my church, and the damage was bad enough that I never went back. My parents, having since become disillusioned by failings of the church, did not push me to attend on my own. I was grateful for that. With no history of a personal relationship with God in my life, any interest in Christianity faded quickly, and I ran full-speed into the arms of young, foolish, unbelieving men.

I’ve already written extensively about my history of sexual and emotional abuse, so I won’t rehash that here. Suffice it to say that I had poor taste in men, and I had no sense of what it meant to be cared for and cherished in a romantic relationship. I don’t hold anyone at fault for that period of my life, and I don’t think it’s necessary to assign blame. In fact, I think it was a mercy that God orchestrated those circumstances, and I believe He let me walk through that decade-long period in my life out of love. Just as He always does, He knew what I needed. He allowed me to make my choices, and to fully understand that there was no hope or salvation for me in the affection of mortal men. If I had the choice, I would not change any of it, because I would not risk any of the good that followed.

And so I dated, dated, and dated. When I got bored or disinterested in a boyfriend, I moved on to another that was more promising. Yes, some of those young men were abusive, but some of them weren’t. I broke a lot of hearts, and I’m not proud of that.

In college, I hit my low point. Hundreds of miles from home, I acknowledged and owned my atheism, and walked through life with no divine guidance or hope. I was studying a major I didn’t want to pursue as a career, wrestling with perfectionism and anxiety, and I was deeply depressed. I partied some to escape my emptiness, but mostly I just ached. I had no idea how to fix the hole that I felt in my soul, but I knew something was meant to be there. I assumed that hole was a place for Mr. Right, and so I kept searching for him.

During my junior and senior year of college, I started dating someone seriously. My new boyfriend seemed nice enough; he was always saying things like, “We never have to do anything you’re not comfortable with,” or “You don’t have to do XYZ until you’re ready.” I told him about my history of abuse, and he seemed to take an interest and be somewhat sympathetic. My bar was low, so that was good enough for me.

Everything would’ve been great, except for the fact that he was simultaneously expressing dissatisfaction in our physical relationship, and suggesting that he might break up with me because of it. Talk about mixed messages.

By then it was 2011. I was depressed, my self-worth was deep into the negatives, and I had no idea who I was. I had graduated college earlier that year, and had no idea what I wanted to do with myself professionally. My boyfriend was communicating more and more often that he was dissatisfied with our physical relationship, and I was afraid to lose him. I was afraid to be alone.

During that time, I lived with 3 Christian women. I was the token house atheist, and we made jokes about it. I asked them to consolidate their belongings because I felt like I was living in a Christian book store, but for the most part, faith wasn’t a huge source of conflict. As an observer, I watched them live together as believers, and love one another through difficult conversations. I heard them speak grace into each other’s lives, and watched them depend on Jesus. It was appealing, but also intimidating and isolating. They lived together in a way that seemed exposing, vulnerable, and yet profoundly fulfilling. But I was not part of their circle, and that fed my loneliness.

Late in 2011, I was at the end of my rope. My boyfriend was depressed as well, though he would never admit it, and I fell back into the lesson that I learned years ago: it was my job to make him happy. So I gave myself over to him completely, an act I’d somehow managed to avoid in all of my years of dating and sexual abuse.

I wept in a pit of emptiness and guilt. In that moment, I realized that I did in fact believe in God, because I knew He would be furious with me for what I’d done. I knowingly committed one of the most ‘severe’ sins according to the church, and I was ashamed. I was bound for condemnation and the fires of hell, and there was no hope for me at all.

In the midst of my assumptions and shame, Jesus spoke grace into my heart.

I remember it vividly. I sensed that Jesus was present in the room with me, and He was weeping. I hadn’t expected Him to weep–I’d expected Him to shake His finger at me, and condemn me for eternity. Maybe yell a little. But my sense of His compassion and grief was overwhelming. I felt Jesus speak directly into my heart: “I would never ask this of you, child. This is not what love is.” And my heart broke.

For awhile, I thought I was a little crazy. It wasn’t an overnight, immediate fall-on-my-knees experience. But Jesus’s words of grace and compassion had left a permanent imprint on my heart, and I did not forget them. I broke up with my boyfriend weeks later, for no better reason than that I knew I needed to let him go.

Soon after that, I woke up on a Sunday morning with a deep sense of confidence and urgency to go about my day in a certain way. I called in sick to my second part-time job, though I was perfectly healthy, and I was absolutely confident it was okay. I spent the day visiting with my roommates, and asked to go to church with them that evening. They were delighted, and we carpooled to church together.

The sermon was nothing profound, to tell you the truth. It was a December sermon on materialism, appropriate for the holiday season. But I heard the gospel clearly, and that night, I finally fell to my knees. I understood that I had no hope apart from God, that I was irreversibly broken apart from the atoning sacrifice of Jesus. I gave my heart over to Him, and admitted that I needed Him desperately. I acknowledged that in His wisdom and mysterious love, He was more qualified to lead my life than I was.

I haven’t been the same since. The change in me was astonishing, and though some patterns and habits lingered, my old self died away to be replaced by someone entirely new. My roommates gave me books to read, and I started attending church regularly. I started to get glimpses of God’s great love for me, and I hungered to learn more. I felt a softening in my heart toward others, and a joy that could not be dampened by any obstacle or injury.

It wasn’t a smooth road, by any means. It was difficult for some of my closest friends to believe and accept the change in me, even the Christian ones. Many relationships were lost, and to this day those relationships remain damaged. I grieve that, but also understand why it happened. Evidently, it’s common for people to have trouble maintaining existing relationships when they convert, because it is truly a complete personal transformation. Why should I expect to live the life I led before, when I have no desire–or ability– to return to that life?

***

My first Christian dating relationship was an absolute train wreck. I was smitten, because we both loved Jesus and therefore must be soulmates. Oh, how naive I was! He told me he wanted to marry me three months in, and I foolishly believed him. Soon after, he broke up with me, and I descended into full-blown despair.

God always knows what I need, and He definitely knew that I needed to have my heart broken by a believer. It wasn’t really about the guy himself. We were horribly mismatched, and he later grew a mustache which left me with absolutely no regrets. In truth, it was about my own obsession with finding Mr. Right, and the weight I assigned to a dating relationship. God used that breakup to expose the deep idolatry of romance in my heart, and to break the patterns of my old life.

It was a painful, long process, but it worked. God healed a part of me that I didn’t even know was broken. He told me that I was enough, and that I didn’t need a man to justify or define myself. He showed me that I belonged to Him, and that in Him, I had everything I would ever need. Is marriage a tremendous blessing? Absolutely. But it is not essential. Grace is the true foundation of my identity, and the well from which I drink daily. Jesus is my sustenance and hope, the only hope that cannot be taken away from me.

I’ve learned a lot over the past 6 years. God has turned over rocks in my heart and exposed festering sin that I never knew I possessed. He has lovingly allowed me to go through trials, that I might grow nearer to Him and walk the path He has laid out for my life.

The blessings and fruit of His work are innumerable, but nonetheless, the highlights are worth naming:

  • God brought me the (earthly) love of my life, and a loving marriage that I’d almost given up hope of finding. He uses Andrew’s presence to heal, challenge, and nurture my soul. He brought me a steady, loyal man to ground me in my roller coaster craziness. He gave us a friendship that awes me, and that continually surprises me in its depth and delightfulness. Apart from grace, Andrew is the best gift I’ve ever been given, and I am often surprised and completely shocked by the fact that we get to enjoy one another for the rest of our lives.
  • God allowed me to go through a long season of suffering and spiritual abuse, exposing my idolatry of the local church, and also leading me directly to my current profession. I never would have found this work on my own, and never would have had the courage to choose it for myself. But I am more professionally content than I have ever been, and I rejoice daily that I’m able to do work that I love.
  • God used that same season of suffering and complex-PTSD to restore my image of Him, and give me a greater understanding of the depth and mystery of His love for me. He healed wounds that I never thought would close, and continues to restore relationships that were broken. The fruit of that suffering hasn’t stopped revealing itself, and I stand in awe of God’s ability to use sin and suffering for His good.

These are only the highlights, but God moves daily. He lovingly rebukes me in my selfishness, and draws me back to Him. He sustains me in challenging moments, difficult conversations, and dark days. And He daily feeds me with the knowledge of heaven, that anything I endure in this life will pale in comparison to the glory of His kingdom.

***

I remember reading a book soon after I became a believer. I don’t remember the title or author, which is probably for the best, because I would publicly shame the heck out of those authors right now if I did. But I do know that it was a book written for young women who desired to dive into their faith.

I was sitting in the lunch room at Opera Theatre, reading a chapter on sexual morality. I’ll never forget reading the words on the page that stunned and outraged me:

“You should not have sex before marriage, because in doing so, you reduce the value and impact of your testimony. By breaking this command, you make yourself less believable as you share your faith, and more of a hypocrite.”

I threw the book across the room, and eventually threw it in the trash. I considered burning it, but didn’t want to put forth the effort. Sure, sex before marriage isn’t part of God’s plan. But that didn’t make the book’s claims any less false. Mercifully, God revealed that false teaching in real time, preventing me from drowning in shame because of a lie.

But what is the truth, then?

Sin–no matter how ugly or shameful–is not a barrier to sharing the gospel. It is an invitation to fall at God’s feet, and to praise His name for His mysterious grace and forgiveness. 

For the unbelievers: If you have something in your life that you are ashamed of, something that lives in the dark shadows of your soul, I want you to hear me. I want you to know that God doesn’t find you dirty or broken, but that He loves you in the midst of that sin. He has already covered every mistake you’ve made–and every mistake you will make–with the atoning death of Jesus. You do not have to be a slave to shame or guilt, but can walk freely in the light of Christ, knowing that God sees Jesus’s perfect record when He looks at you. I invite you to give your life over to the God of love and grace, who sent His Son to die that He might bring us back to relationship with Him.

For the believers: Remember that we are all the chief of sinners. Do not slip into the habit of ranking sin, or disqualifying someone because their version of brokenness is different than your own. Watch your words, and love everyone as the brothers and sisters we have come to be in the kingdom of God. Preach grace, not condemnation or judgment. Leave the burden of condemnation to our good and perfect God. Instead, outdo one another in love, especially with people you have difficulty understanding.

“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 2:9-10

Life in the Gray

I’m not a big fan of winter. More specifically, I detest the darkness that winter brings.

Yes, it is technically spring as of Tuesday. Yes, daylight savings happened. But you know what? My experiential spring is not here yet. March thru mid-April is this pesky transitional period that makes me want to curl up in a ball and hibernate all over again. The temperatures are rising, but not consistently. The sun comes out occasionally, and when it does, it is glorious. But more often than not, the forecast looks like this:

 

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Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing, my friends. Winter wasn’t too bad this year, but as usual, the gray of early spring has caught me by surprise. And it’s not a good surprise.

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve fallen into a routine. Andrew comes home from work, and asks me about my day. I shrug, because it was fine but not great. He asks what’s wrong, and I shrug again. “Nothing really. I just miss the sun.” Yes, I literally say that. Then we decide to snuggle on the couch and watch The Office because the show is funny, and neither of us feels like doing a whole lot more than that after a full day of work.

I get out of bed. I serve my clients. I write. I eat. But for this brief time of year, it is a mechanical sort of existence. A pause in the hallway, an intermission between acts. The sun is coming back–I know that cognitively–but that fact alone is not enough to pierce the gloom. Early spring is a halfway happy, a lackluster shade of gray.

***

I’ve been attending a weekly bible study since December, which has been a positive experience for the most part. I enjoy the daily time in scripture, and the fruit that comes from consistently hearing from God. Daily study is a game changer, but I wouldn’t stick to it as well without the structure provided by the class.

We’re studying Romans, with frequent references to other parts of the Bible, and most of it has been so, so good for my soul. The gospel is good–why wouldn’t it feel amazing to remind myself of that daily? But along with that goodness, I’ve found myself clouded by the gray in-between, the “gaps” I perceive that, if filled, would allow the Bible to read more like a how-to manual.

Proverbs is filled with warnings about types of friends to avoid, and when we should say no to a relationship. Yet verses throughout scripture call us to love one another, to bear one another’s burdens, to forgive, to be sacrificial. Where is the line between being a godly friend, and having biblical boundaries? There is no definitive answer given, no authoritative black and white.

Then we arrived at Romans 12. “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” The commands and intentions are clear–as Christians, we are not to be neutral or passive in loving our enemies, but actively good. That’s peachy when I need to be kind to someone who cuts me off in traffic, or I need to forgive a stranger for her unkind remark about my profession as a creative.

But praying for your enemies is an eye-popping, mind-boggling request when God asks you to pray for your abusers.

God commands me to be “for him,” to let go of angry speeches that I’ve rehearsed in case I run into him at a grocery store. Neutrality isn’t enough.

Oh, how silly of me to think I’d mastered my bitterness and conquered my anger! “I’ve forgiven him,” I’d say. In loving response, I imagine God chuckled to Himself, then brought me to Romans 12. He always knows me better than I know myself.

I tried praying for my most recent abuser, and it brought me to my knees. I found myself weeping in this tension of acknowledging his behavior as evil, but knowing that he was no more tainted by sin than I am. I caught a brief glimpse of our equal need for Jesus, and while it was cathartic, it was also exhausting. I had to pry my fingers away from my beloved anger to get there.

Confronting evil in a broken world brings me right into the heart of the gray. This world is the waiting room for our eternal, true home. I know it’s coming, but it’s not here yet. What to do while I wait leaves me feeling clouded, and more than a little frustrated with the gray. I ache for the glorious light of God’s presence. But it simply isn’t time yet.

***

There is a conversation I’d been avoiding with Andrew since the day we were married. A topic I’ve mentioned, but fiercely refused to discuss for two and a half years, possibly even longer, dating back to our engagement. I dreaded the conversation with a bleakness that words could never express. But I also knew we needed to have it, mostly for my sake, so we put a block of time on the calendar and prepared accordingly.

On Sunday, we talked about death. We talked about what we want to happen if we’re seriously ill or wounded, especially if we’re not able to make decisions for ourselves. We talked about our bodies, and what we want to happen to them when we’re gone. We talked about each other’s well being, and what we would hope for one another in the event that one of us died and left the other behind.

I started crying approximately 30 seconds into the conversation.

Andrew smiled gently, and asked if we should have the conversation another time. “Oh no,” I said. “I’m going to cry no matter when we have this conversation. We might as well do it now.”

Imagining Andrew’s death is one of my primary sources of anxiety. It is a difficult fear to combat, because you know what? He could die today. He could die next week, or next year. He probably won’t, but there is absolutely no way for me to know that for certain. It isn’t necessarily a fear that lives at the forefront of my mind, or one that prevents me from staying present in my life.

Instead, the anxiety lurks under the surface of my consciousness, rising up like a shark when I least expect it. I glance at the clock, and it’s 4:30 PM. Andrew is typically home by now, but I haven’t heard from him. What if he’s in a car accident, bleeding out on the shoulder of a highway somewhere? I shake my head, and I move on. The fear recedes into the depths of my self, where I can’t see it or touch it. But it’s there, and I know it will come back.

Anxiety feeds on the gray, the unknowable and the unanswerable. The questions that have no answers. More accurately, perhaps, anxiety feeds on the questions for which the world has no answers. 

***

Like the gray of winter hinting the return of the sun, the unanswerable and the unknowable grays can point to a coming dawn. No, the fullness of spring isn’t here yet. But it’s coming, and I can see the signs of it. Flower buds poke up out of the mulch, trumpeting the forthcoming warmth. On days like yesterday, the sunshine is so startling and restorative that I can’t help but tear up, close my eyes, and drink it in with my arms outstretched.

FinallyYes. I needed this. 

It is the same experience when I sit in stillness, letting the full truth of God’s sovereignty and faithfulness fill my soul. The ambiguous questions are still pesky, but at last, they have answers. Not just any answers…good answers! Answers that invite sunlight into my heart, scattering the clouds effortlessly.

What should I do about….

Trust me. I am good.

What if something bad happens…

Trust me. I am good.

What if I never…

Trust me. I am good. 

The gray of winter lingers far longer than I would prefer, and the season feels interminable. But my perception doesn’t change the fact that the sun is coming. While I wait, I cling to the scattered, precious rays of warmth, knowing that there are blissfully sunny days ahead.

Reflections on a First Draft

In case it wasn’t clear from the title of this post, I FINISHED THE FIRST DRAFT OF MY NOVEL!! It wrapped up on Wednesday around 49,000 words.

For those of you who aren’t writers, this is a big deal. There aren’t a lot of milestones in the writing journey. Most days, I think to myself, “Oh. I put my butt in my chair and I typed something. That’s progress, right?” There aren’t many ‘big wins’ until you hit the major checkpoints, and a finished initial draft is the first one of those checkpoints in my writing process.

As if that weren’t enough to celebrate, I finished the draft the day before International Women’s Day! In hindsight, I sort of wish I’d dragged it out for another day, to land on the actual holiday. Think of the raw feminine satisfaction! Regardless, I’m proud to be a woman, a professional, and a writer, especially this week. (Side note — I’m offering a discount on services for women in celebration of International Women’s day. Check it out if you’re interested.)

My work-in-progress is the second novel for which I’ve completed a first draft. The first was a practice novel, something deeply personal and therapeutic that I will likely never edit, or at least will leave untouched for many years. So this current novel is extra special, because it’s the first project that will advance to a second draft right away.

There was definitely a not-so-great moment on Wednesday after I’d finished the draft, celebrated via text and social media, and consumed a perfectly justified number of self-congratulatory Oreos. (It was also National Oreo Day this week. Why wouldn’t I?)

My not-so-great realization moment looked a little something like this:

 

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Yep–that was me realizing that editing is next.

The writing process is never-ending; this is something I had yet to learn until this week, because my first novel was tucked away in a drawer immediately after the first draft was completed. Check and done, yo! On to the next big idea.

To be completely honest, this reality about the writing and editing process makes finishing a first draft pretty darn anticlimactic. I’ve reached a milestone, but there’s still a long road ahead before the project is truly done. I’m working to frame this as encouraging rather than depressing–I have ample opportunity to do work that I love: polishing and pruning. Over the next several months, I’ll be working to embrace myself as an empowered, critical, nitpicking superhero.

That said, this draft is still a tremendous victory for me, and the culmination of a process that was wildly different than writing my first novel. In true nerd form, I took this as an opportunity to reflect and see what I’ve learned from writing this draft over the last four months. Here’s what I came up with.

1. Discovery writing is my jam.

When I wrote my first novel, I outlined and planned to my heart’s content. I’m about as Type A as it gets, and I was absolutely certain that Brandon Sanderson and I were writing process soulmates. How could I be wrong?

But when I started writing an interim project that I ended up tabling, I realized a few things. First, the outline was evaporating my creative energy. I had zero sense of control over the creative process, and had almost no motivation to write. There were a number of other issues, including the fact that the project was just too complex for my skill level right now. So I set it aside, and moved on to something more doable.

For this new project, I wanted to achieve two major goals: write an urban fantasy, so I don’t have to worry about world building just yet, and give discovery writing a chance. For the non-writing readers out there, discovery writing is the end of the spectrum opposite outlining. Instead of planning out the details of the setting, plot, and character arcs for the story, discovery writers just dive in and let the story go where it goes. Outliners do more work upfront, and discovery writers do a lot of cleaning up after the draft is written.

I didn’t expect this to work for me as well as it did, but holy crap, people! Discovery writing this novel was incredibly freeing. I felt creatively empowered, motivated, and pumped to sit down and write most days. That’s a big deal, and I will absolutely be hanging on to that process moving forward.

2. Routine rules.

In the name of self-employed discipline and focus, my day is scheduled out in specific blocks of time. I have my morning routine, allow myself some time to run errands if needed, and tackle client work before doing any other writing or business work. My writing block starts at 1:30 PM, every day of the week.

And you know what? Something about that consistent daily start time really, really works. Occasionally, I tried to start writing earlier in the day, but 99% of the time my body was like, “WHOA! Not ready. Try me again at 1:30 PM.” And when that time did come around each afternoon, my instincts naturally settled in to writing mode. It was glorious–imperfect, but definitely fruitful.

For the sake of getting words on the page and training my body to write consistently, I’ll continue to maintain a daily writing routine moving forward.

3. All writing is good progress.

Every day, my goal was to get words on the page. It didn’t matter how many words I added to the draft, and it didn’t matter how ridiculously bad the quality of the writing was. I knew if I chipped away at the story, eventually, it would turn into a completed first draft. And it did.

But I definitely struggle to believe that on some days. It’s easy to try to get it right the first time, to agonize over the right word or phrasing. First drafts aren’t meant to be polished, though. And having words on the page gave me momentum, even if they were the wrong words. It is much easier to work from something than from nothing, even if that something needs a lot of work later on.

4. I can actually do this!

This might seem silly, but this draft is the one that gives me the confidence to keep writing! My first novel was therapeutic in nature, and the focus wasn’t intentional, solid storytelling. So I wasn’t confident that I would jump into something totally different and be able to commit to the process.

But I did it! I wrote 49,000 words, and I’m excited to mold that mound of clay into something identifiable and beautiful. Finishing this draft taught me that I can finish a book, and I can actually be a writer of speculative fiction. Huzzah!

—-

It’s been a crazy journey thus far, and I know it’s only beginning. Thank you so much for reading — thank you for caring about my work, and for listening to the thoughts that I throw out there into the digital universe. I can’t tell you how much it means when you let me know you’re following the blog, or tell me that you’re genuinely excited to read my book some day. It’s a lot easier to write when I know there are already willing readers out there, ready to give my book a chance. Thank you for your encouragement and support — it means much more than I can effectively convey!

To all the women out there, Happy International Women’s Day! Rock your strengths with confidence, and keep moving toward your goals. You are worthy, talented, intelligent, and valuable, and I believe in your ability to succeed. Go conquer the world!

The Spiritual Danger in Grumbling

I don’t know about you, but if there was such a thing, I could definitely earn an Olympic gold medal for grumbling. Top of the podium, my friends. I would leave my competitors in the dust.

Complaining is a trap that I fall into often, and one that I’ve let slide over the years. Everyone does it. Life is broken and annoying. What’s the big deal if I voice a few frustrations, or let the stream of grumbling flow in mind?

Driving is a great example of this. I’ve never had much patience on the road, but since I began working at home about than a year and a half ago, my tolerance for traffic has reduced drastically. I rarely find myself in rush hour traffic since I have no commute, and when I do go out during the day, light traffic is a tremendous annoyance.

I was driving last night when Andrew and I went out for an impromptu Valentine’s date. Up until yesterday, we proclaimed our self-righteous defiance of the holiday with confidence: Valentine’s Day is one of the most commercialized holidays out there! Love should be a daily act, not something that you can tick off one day of the year with flowers or chocolates! Ugh! Disgust!

Nonetheless, I found myself putting on my favorite red blouse, smearing on some red lipstick, and feeling like we should go see a movie at the very least. I mean, it was discount night at St. Louis Cinemas! Why wouldn’t we go out? Hypocrisy at its finest, my friends. Perhaps Valentine’s Day is just another day to love with intention, and the calendar reminder doesn’t hurt.

Anyway, I was behind the wheel to and from our date, and I found myself speaking aloud toward other driver’s in a not-so-nice fashion, pretty much constantly. I’m not used to having Andrew in the car with me that often, and his presence made me more aware of my frustrated ranting.

I don’t like you at all, what are you doing?! Why are you in the left lane and going 5 under? The left lane is the fast lane! Why is everybody driving like an idiot? 

My awareness of my grumbling was heightened by the fact that I’d listened to a sermon earlier that day on, you guessed it, grumbling. The experience in the car caused me to stop and think, Whoa. Am I really falling into this trap that often, and that easily?

I follow a wonderful blog called Practical Theology for Women written by Wendy Alsup. Her most recent post hit my inbox yesterday, and it was a discussion of sin in the midst of suffering. Wendy is dealing with a cancer diagnosis, among other things, and she talked about how a sermon from her previous church in Seattle provided some helpful insight into the biblical perspective on grumbling.

The sermon is from 2009, but is still available on Grace Church Seattle’s website here, if you’re interested. In this talk, John Haralson does a fantastic job of walking through Philippians 2 and talking about the Bible’s warning against grumbling.

I listened to this sermon while I took a walk yesterday, and it was a big ol’ smack in the face about the recent state of my heart. It was a warning, and for the first time I took it as seriously as it was meant to be received.

There were a few major takeaways that I gleaned from the sermon, and I’ll walk through them now. Hopefully these will be beneficial for you as you examine your own heart.

#1 – Grumbling is a surreptitious danger that can quietly wreck your faith.

The most fascinating and eye-opening part of the sermon was the argument that God warns against grumbling because it can wreck your faith. I hadn’t considered grumbling to be as serious as many of the other sins the Bible warns against–what was the big deal?

But the end point of grumbling is the conclusion that something is wrong, and because of that, God is not good. 

Think about that for a minute. I’ll use the traffic scenario above as a common, more frivolous example, but the logic still applies. My stream of thought in the car can quickly transition from frustration at the drivers around me, to doubting the sovereignty and goodness of God. Look at this stream of thought, pulled straight from my own experience:

Man, everybody is driving like a moron today! Ugh!
Why am I hitting every single light on the way? That’s so unfair. I don’t always hit them, and I happen to hit them NOW, when I’m running late?
God, you could make these lights green, but You’re not doing it. WHY?

Bam. Grumbling about traffic somehow meanders its way down to “Is God really good? If He is, why isn’t He intervening?”

At this point, you may be thinking, “Traffic, really? That’s what you’re complaining about?” Fair point! Let’s talk about something more significant, a “lack” that can be more accurately categorized as suffering.

I’ve mentioned previously that I went through a long season of spiritual abuse, which led me to suffer from complex-PTSD for a season. All of this began about 3 days after Andrew and me returned from our honeymoon, and it was a long, agonizing haul. I spent a lot of time ignoring God altogether, but eventually I started incorporating God into my anger about the events that came to pass.

My pretty-much-daily train of thought looked something like this:

Why did that abusive person have to be a part of my life? Why did this abuse have to wreck my time as an employee at the church, which seemed to be an incredible fit for me? Why am I not seeing justice for the wrong done? God, you put him there! You set him in the middle of my life and you let him wreck it, RIGHT after my honeymoon! My first year of marriage is characterized by survival and tears and anger instead of what it could have been. You’ve robbed me of a gift that I’ve waited and waited for, and you’re not doing anything about it to make it right. You can’t be good. You just can’t be. You laughed while you dropped a bomb on our lives, at the very beginning of our marriage. Why? 

Do you see the progression woven into those thoughts? Something is awful, and God’s not doing anything about it, therefore God can’t be good. That’s some serious damage to my faith, right there! My entire image of God was uprooted, and theologically incorrect. I truly believed that God was cackling maniacally while he pushed a big red button and dropped a bomb on our lives. I believed that, and it all started when I grumbled about the hand life had dealt me.

So what do we do with that warning, and an understanding of the danger in grumbling? Again, John Haralson does a great job of addressing this in his sermon, but my second major takeaway was the practical, Biblical response to “lack” in our lives:

#2 – Lament is Biblical, and we are invited to command God to make things right.

This one was a little mind-blowing for me. So often, we respond to lack in our lives by trying to either 1) grumble as described above or 2) bury the discontentment in gratitude. I’m definitely guilty of the latter as well, and I’m guessing you’ve experienced it at some point in your own life, directly or indirectly: “Oh, yeah, things are bad, but they could by much worse. I have a lot to be thankful for. There are hungry kids out there, and people dying from terminal illness. I should be thankful to not having it as bad as they do. I’m blessed. God will use the bad stuff, and everything will be fine. ”

Haralson points out that this approach is not a biblical response to suffering, and felt like doing a cartwheel when I heard him say so. Independent of suffering, sure! We’re absolutely commanded to be grateful, and to praise God for the gifts He’s given us. But the Book of Psalms alone is Biblical proof that we are meant to have a different response to suffering and discontentment.

40% of Psalms are psalms of lament. (Don’t even get me started on this source’s argument that churches aren’t proportionally representing lament in their song selections. Totally different issue that makes my blood boil!) I already knew that lament was a prominent topic in the Bible, but what I hadn’t considered was the specific language and posture that David used in his laments.

Let’s take Psalm 59 for example. The very first line in this psalm, the FIRST thing that David says, is “Deliver me from my enemies.” David straight-up commands God to take a messed up situation, and make it right. And David does this over, and over, and over again throughout Psalms.

That’s our example. So how does that apply to real-life situations, the here and now?

When I think about my spiritual abuse and the ripple effects that continue to negatively impact our lives, this is how I would translate my “lack” into a lament to God:

God, that period of abuse messed up a lot of things in our lives. Years later, we still feel the pains of that season, and we still wrestle with its impact on our lives. DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT! Make it right. Heal my own heart, so I don’t fall into anger or bitterness. Heal Andrew. Show us how to trust you again. You are God, and you are the one who has to step in to fix what is broken in our world.

There is nothing wrong with that prayer. It is 100% theologically sound. I will say, though, that it’s incomplete, because David always ends with an assurance of God’s goodness and faithfulness. So after the above, I might close with this:

God, you delivered us through that season of suffering. You preserved our brand-new marriage, when the abuse and pain could have crushed us. You have used the junk of the last couple of years to produce fruit in our marriage, and in my professional life. I trust you to act again now. I trust that you will not abandon us, that You are a good and faithful God. I come to you in the name of your son Jesus, who continues to intercede on my behalf at your right hand. 

Bam. It’s honestly earth-shattering for me, even as I write it out now, even though the Bible is packed with examples of this type of prayer! Even though it’s laid out plain as day for me in scripture, I haven’t ever consistently adhered to this posture of lament as I talk with God about the “lack” in my life.

Adhering to this model, however, has already proven to be cathartic and life-giving for my soul. I feel a release in giving my burdens to God, while also feeling energized and hopeful in remembering his past faithfulness, and trusting Him to follow through. The fruit is good, my friends. I invite you to explore your own posture in discussing your pain with God, and to approach Him as a good and generous Father who will alwayshear you.

The Gospel at Work: Writing Without Fear

Every month or two, I try to designate a blog post to pausing and exploring the current state-of-the-union in my writing journey: how it’s going, what I’m learning, what I’m struggling with, and what concepts are at the forefront of my thoughts. I do this largely for myself and for the insights revealed in the process of creating such an update, but I also do this for other writers that might be tuning in. Often, these posts are narrow in focus, and the content is primarily relevant for people who call themselves writers.

Today’s post is an exception, and I believe the subject is relevant whether you call yourself a writer or not. Why? Because we all get scared sometimes, and the concept that I’ve been wrestling with and mulling over in my writing journey is fear.

The more I look, the more I see fear at the root of problems in my writing and personal life. Technically speaking, my writing process is fantastic in the present season, and that’s how I generally respond when people ask how it’s going. My work-in-progress is somewhere around 30,000 words, the discovery approach continues to provide creative freedom and space, and I’m getting words on the page consistently. The story is fun, I like how the characters and plot are developing, and I’m having a good time watching it unfold.

But my complete writing journey is so much broader and complex than a work-in-progress status. The big picture encompasses the why of writing, the purpose in sitting down and stringing words together, and the vehicles through which those words are shared. More and more, I find myself feeling compelled to write non-fiction, to tell personal stories that are vulnerable and challenging, and to tell those stories honestly. When I explore these subjects as writing exercises, I dive into them with such intense focus that I lose track of time as well as my basic human needs, like water and bathroom breaks. I reach a stopping point, shake my head a little, and look around with a dazed look on my face, having entirely forgotten my surroundings for an hour or two. Sometimes I’m even a little winded, like I forgot to breathe often enough while I was writing.

For those of you who don’t write, it’s worth noting that this sort of head space is pure writing gold. The work is fueled by intuition, and it produces an uninterrupted stream of thought that is untainted by tandem concerns or distractions. Most importantly, perhaps, the intense focus drives out any and all fear that is often present in writing.

As fearless as the writing itself can be, the compulsion to write more non-fiction is absolutely terrifying. The thought ignites a long list of anxiety-ridden questions, all rooted in various fears:

What happens to my work-in-progress if I spend more time on non-fiction?

Will I ever finish a novel?

Am I hurting my marketability by pursuing multiple genres? How will I get an agent?

What if I make a full switch to non-fiction? Am I being fickle, or is this the right move?

How will my loved ones respond if I continue to explore challenging topics like abuse?

Will the non-fiction topics that I’m compelled to explore require too much courage, beyond my capacity to be vulnerable?

And so it continues. When I see laundry lists of questions forming as above, I try to stop, take a step back, and breathe. What am I freaking out about, and what question do I need to resolve?

In this case, that leads me to the following conclusion: I’m freaking out because I don’t know what I should write. So why, exactly, do I write?

This is the point in the conversation where God steps in. If the thread of faith irritates you as you keep up with my blog, I understand—trust me. When I was in college, I lived with three Christian roommates, but wasn’t a Christian myself yet. I was super turned off and frustrated by the fact that every single conversation with my roomies always ended up coming back to God. The books scattered around the apartment were the most obvious sign of the problem: on every coffee table or available horizontal space, I saw titles like “Jesus and Dating,” “Jesus and Friendship,” and “Jesus and Work.” It was like living in a Christian bookstore, and as a non-Christian, that was frustrating as hell. I told my roommates how I felt, and asked them to consolidate into piles, at least, for my sake. It was my apartment too, and I didn’t appreciate the visual and conversational nudges suggesting that I was a heathen in my own home!

So I totally get it if you’re throwing your hands up in the air and thinking to yourself, “Man, she’s talking about God again? Why do I even read this blog?” I don’t blame you for feeling that way, and I know from experience how isolating the mention of God or Jesus can be in conversation. But I invite you to read anyway, to take away what works for you, and explore the ideas even if they’re foreign or frustrating. If you hate the mention of God, reach out and let’s have a conversation about it instead of allowing our differences to put space between us. My goal is never to isolate or alienate non-Christians, but simply to write truthfully, without filters or fear. I’d wager that it’s about as uncomfortable for me as it is for the listener when I know I’m talking about God with someone who doesn’t believe in God. (More on that particular fear in a minute!)

The truth is that the radical impact of the gospel on my life is so pervasive that I physically cannot separate it from my professional endeavors—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are interwoven into every aspect of my life, whether that reality is convenient or not.

That brings me back to my previous question—why do I write? There are a bunch of reasons that could motivate someone to write: to make a living, to sell books, to share stories, to inspire, to explore concepts, to learn, to grow, to observe, to comment, to challenge, to heal. As I write, many of these options are motivating factors. But as a Christian, I have to constantly align my own choices and direction in life with the Word of God. According to the Bible, everything that I say, think, or do should be directed toward the glory and praise of God. My writing is no exception. So every time I write, no matter what I write about, the act of writing is an invitation to worship, and to give all of the glory and praise to God.

Of course, that can be achieved through fiction or non-fiction. C.S. Lewis certainly glorified God in The Chronicles of Narnia, just as much as Brennan Manning did in Ruthless Trust and The Ragamuffin Gospel. There are many more subtle examples, too, but the genre or vehicle for praise is not the problem. The problem, in my case, is fear.

There is a great deal of fear involved in writing at all, and in tossing one’s thoughts out into the digital abyss for all to see. But the fear increases as the writing gets more exposing, or countercultural. So writing about hard issues like anxiety, spiritual abuse, loneliness, and sexual assault in the context of Christianity is about as scary as it gets.

Somewhere in a previous blog post, I made a passing comment about the moment that I became a believer, and said something like “I’ll never be able to do that story justice.” That’s a bunch of crap, of course. God will use my story no matter how poorly I tell it! The reality is that I’m absolutely terrified to make the attempt, and to put the story out in the open. In addition to worrying about the responses from my friends and family, I find myself worrying about the responses of the general public, and especially my non-Christian friends.

What if I alienate my non-Christian friends, whom I love and want to stay in relationship with?

What if I lose clients because they’re turned off by the spiritual-lean of my blog content?

What if my stories and experiences are lost in the sea of false-Christianity running rampant in our culture today, especially in light of the political climate and the regular (false) Biblical claims from the alt-right?

Fear, fear, and more fear.

What do I do with that mountain of anxiety? Fortunately, the Bible has a few things to say on the subject of fear. The word ‘fear’ itself appears more than 500 times in the KJV, and depending on how you count ‘em and which translation you use, the command “do not fear,” “fear not,” or “do not be afraid” appears between 112 and 365+ times. Great, fine, thanks God. But letting go of fear is easier said than done!

However, that’s exactly what the gospel achieves for us—the ability to cast out fear and trust fully in the sacrifice of Jesus, through the love of God the Father. There is no fear or worry that stands up in the face of the gospel, because Jesus has conquered everything from shame to death itself.

My favorite reference for this is Matthew 6:25-34, mostly because I think Jesus is being hilarious. When I read those verses, I translate them in my mind to something like, “Yo! The Father feeds the birds, and they’re smart enough not to worry about whether or not he’ll follow through. Chill out. God’s got you.”

In my long list of “What ifs” and fears about writing, there is no single concern that can stand up in light of the gospel. Yes, I’m afraid of what people will think. Yes, I’m afraid of being put to shame. Yes, I’m afraid of losing friends and alienating neighbors. Yes, I’m afraid that I will hurt someone’s feelings. But none of these negate the promises of God, or the sacrifice of Jesus.

So as I feel compelled to write more non-fiction, I’m going to write more non-fiction and let God worry about the rest. I’m going to write vulnerably, as honestly as I can, and share my experiences. I’m going to talk about hard subjects like anxiety, loneliness, and abuse, because they are relevant to so many hurting people out there, and they resonate in the deep, hidden centers of our selves. I’m going to talk about these things, because these topics need to be discussed more often in the name of healing and hope. I will share, because it is Biblical to name our failings, our weaknesses, and our fears, and to learn to rely more fully on the power and person of Jesus.

This is where I am in my journey. I don’t know exactly where it all leads, and I don’t plan to set my fiction work down altogether; my compulsion is simply to invite other topics and projects into the mix. For now, I’m taking it one day at a time. I’m learning to lean on the promises of God, to be fearless as I share the full truth of what He has done—and is currently doing—in my life, for His glory and my good. God’s glory is more important than my comfort, no matter how exposed I feel in the process.

In this blog, you can expect to see more mention of my relationship with God, and issues of spirituality explored. If that bothers you, I’ll remind you once more that my writing is completely intertwined with my faith; they are inseparable, forever blended together to create the ‘new me’ that lives in the power of Christ (Colossions 3). Let’s get together and talk about it, and above all, let’s not let our differences get in the way of our relationships. There’s quite enough divisiveness and “us vs. them” in our world already. I invite you to dig into the icky awkward stuff with me, and to see what happens when we don’t run away from the hard topics—an honest look at faith and spirituality included!

The Problem of Presence

I wish there was a better word for ‘presence.’

The New Age movement has done some serious damage to concepts like presence, mindfulness, peace, and meditation. Some people are automatically turned off by the mention of these words, because the concepts are preached non-stop (with a complete lack of substance) through social media. On the other hand, at the mention of these concepts, followers of the New Age movement dive into rehearsed mantras about their ‘true selves’ that they are likely parroting verbatim from their yoga teacher.

I find myself standing somewhere in the balance of these two extremes–I practice yoga at home, and believe that there is a tremendous amount of value in being in the present moment. But I also balk at the overuse, and the surface-level social-media-slathering approach to the idea of just ‘being.’

There has to be a sensible middle-ground approach in there somewhere, right?

This tension has snuck up on me a lot recently. Two recent occurrences happened at the Botanical Gardens…a magnificent place to just ‘be’! But on both occasions, Andrew and I were there for special events, and I was grieved by the example of our culture’s growing inability to just sit back and enjoy a moment.

The first occasion was during the Japanese Festival, a fun annual event at MOBOT featuring performances, cultural demonstrations, traditional Japanese food and goods, and much more. It’s a great event, but increasingly busy each year.

One of the most meaningful traditions that is demonstrated annually at the Japanese Festival is the tōrō nagashi, a lantern ceremony that is meant to assist departed souls in finding their way to the spirit world. People collect and light lanterns in honor of their lost loved ones, and these lanterns are set adrift on the lake in the Japanese Garden in the evening after the sun has set.

We tried to attend this ceremony at the festival, but the solemnity of the experience was completely ruined by the thousands and thousands of flashing cell phone cameras blinding us at random.

This was a ceremony meant to honor and guide the dead, and the vast majority of people in attendance were obsessively trying to capture the perfect cell-phone shot. Can you imagine seeing someone doing that at, say, a funeral?

We found ourselves back at the Botanical Gardens a few weeks ago to enjoy the annual Garden Glow. A holiday event, the gardens are lit with a spectacular amount of Christmas lights designed in themed sections along a walking path. I’ve attended the glow several times now, and this year was by far the worst experience.

Crowds aside (seriously though, they are letting way too many people in at a time in the name of profit!), we didn’t even elect to walk through my favorite part of the glow, the tunnel of lights.

A few years ago, I went to the glow with some friends on a super cold night. There were so few people there that we were able to literally lie down in the tunnel, and just stare up at the lights all around us for several minutes. It was magical, and one of my favorite St. Louis memories!

This year, the line leading into the tunnel was so extensive that we didn’t even bother. Part of the reason for that line was immediately obvious–from a distance, we could see people inside the tunnel holding their cell phones up and adjusting their settings to capture the perfect photo. And it wasn’t a quick process.

We moved on, and vowed to return to the glow next year only on the coldest, most unappealing night of the year, maybe an hour before closing. We’ll bundle up and deal with it, and we’ll probably have a better time as a result.

Or maybe we’ll just walk through Candy Cane Lane instead, and simply enjoy being together during the holidays, sans selfies.

***

A few weeks ago, I was again confronted with this idea of presence when I was creating my professional schedule and goals for 2018. I went into my Goodreads account to look something up, and there it was, smacking me right in the face:

“GOODREADS READING CHALLENGE 2018! PUSH YOURSELF–HOW MANY BOOKS WILL YOU READ THIS YEAR?”

For those of you who don’t use Goodreads, it’s a social media site for readers that also has some great tools for tracking books you’ve read, and books you want to read. Each year, they add this little tool to the side of your homepage that allows you to track what you’re currently reading, and also to keep track of how many books you’ve read for the year. At the beginning of each year, they encourage you to set a nice, ambitious number of books to read, and display that publicly for your friends to see.

In general, I love Goodreads. It’s helpful as I collect books for my reading list, and for reminding me of books I haven’t read in years. The reviews are also pretty good, and helpful in determining whether or not I want to read something new.

But why must we measure success so quantitatively, especially for an activity as personal as reading? Why not celebrate any opportunity to sit down, read, and savor a story, as quickly or as slowly as we want? Reading has intrinsic value, and that value isn’t compromised by a certain pace. What’s the rush?

A while back, I stopped measuring both my writing and my reading goals by words or books — instead, I measure time. Am I spending time reading and writing, no matter how much I ‘achieve’ in that window? Reading, writing, or just sitting and thinking about what I’m going to write can be considered independently productive, with no qualifiers or caveats.

As a result of this perspective shift, I’ve seen a dramatic improvement in how much I enjoy time spent reading and writing. Maybe because I’m not dealing with the tick-box at the back of my mind, or the bar that I have to meet.

Maybe I can just enjoy what I’m doing, and learn from it…on some days, at least!

***

Not too long ago, my parents had some of our home movies digitized. I offered to help get the files stored in the cloud while they stored them on an external hard drive, so I spent a good amount of time going through those home movies, and making sure they were labeled accurately.

Most of our home movies are videos of special events, like birthdays, Christmas gatherings, soccer games, and piano recitals. I was watching the video labeled “Hannah’s 2nd Birthday” when the scene changed, and I saw tiny little two-year-old me running around in the yard with my dad. It took me a few minutes to realize it wasn’t a birthday video or anything I was used to seeing previously–this was just a video of me playing with my parents on a normal, not-so-special day.

I’m pretty sure I’d never seen the video before, either.

I watched, mesmerized as I asked to climb into the back of a pick-up truck I have absolutely no memories of. Dad sat with me in the back of the truck and sang “If You’re Happy and You Know It” with me — I enthusiastically rubbed my eyes and cried “Boo Hoo!” when the sad verse came around each time. It’s an ironic, innocent, hilarious catch.

Dad defends me from a spider that has appeared in the back of the truck, and we watch airplanes flying overhead.

At some point, the camera changes, and my mom is holding me on her hip, singing a song with me–that I again have no memory of–called “We’re Going to the Zoo.” Google tells me that this is a Raffi song, which makes more sense; we listened and sang along with a whole lot of Raffi growing up, but I must have preferred some of his other hits like “Banana Phone” and “Baby Beluga” that I can still recall today.

Dad is filming while we sing verses with a repeating chorus:

Going to the zoo, zoo, zoo! 
How about you, you, you?
You can come too, too, too!

We’re going to the zoo, zoo, zoo!

When we say “you,” we point, because kid songs. In the middle of a chorus, I realize mid-phrase that I’m pointing at dad holding the video camera, and stop to say “Daddy come to the zoo too?”

Mom laughs and reassures me that yes, Daddy can also come to the zoo in this fictional scenario where we’re singing about going to the zoo, but not actually going to the zoo.

We can all be together, and there is nothing in the world to worry about at all.

The scene cuts again to a different part of the yard on the same day. I’m sitting on the front porch with dad admiring our pumpkins. Mom is holding the camera, and asks what I’m going to be for Halloween–with a little help, I eventually remember and state that I’m going to be a ninja turtle for Halloween. My parents were awesome Halloween influences, obviously.

I’m in tears by the time the video cuts to my 3rd birthday party, another special, present-filled day with cake all over my face, and family and friends gathered in the living room.

Suddenly, I realize that my own kids will never have this experience. It will never again be this precious for them to see video of themselves, or to be emotionally overwhelmed watching the magic of their parents loving them on a normal, just-because day. They will have mountains of video of themselves, and will be used to being posed and prodded just so for the ideal, Instagram-worthy photo.

What will that do to them, I wonder?

I don’t know. But as I watch this precious video of my parents playing with me in the yard, I vow not to constantly put my phone in my kids’ faces, when that day comes.

No matter how stinking cute they are, I vow to be with them.

***

Our culture is constantly screaming at us and pushing us to do more, participate according to the rules, tick off the boxes, and blend in.

Everyone is taking pictures and photos constantly, so take pictures constantly.
Everyone is setting an ambitious reading goal, so read more books and keep up.
Everyone is binge-watching TV and movies on Netflix, so definitely do that and stay “in-the-know” on the latest hit shows.

The problem is that while everyone is taking pictures and video, sharing all the juicy details on social media, reading ferociously fast, and binge-watching TV, their friends and loved ones sitting right next to them are watching.

We manage to see each other, somehow, as we ignore each other.
We see the passing moments, and the missed opportunities to really connect.

In today’s world, that is the problem of presence. Though the word itself–and perhaps even the concept–is trendy and “in,” the practice of sitting back and enjoying moments together is definitely not.

I’m no exception. I fight the temptation to go with the flow and not really see my husband, or spend intentional, sweet time with him. I fail to see every moment with family or loved ones as the gift that it is. But that doesn’t mean that those moments are any less precious, or that I shouldn’t try to be present in those moments with the people I love.

I don’t know where you stand on this subject. Maybe you are a social media advocate and think I’m a behind-the-times traditionalist with no vision. Maybe you think it’s super important to set ambitious quantitative reading goals, and you swear by your decision to binge-watch TV regularly. That’s fine! You do you.

But no matter where you fall on the spectrum of response regarding the concept of presence, I invite you to be with your loved ones. It was my grandma’s dying advice to us when I saw her last, and I happen to think she might have been wiser than me:

Spend as much time with your family and loved ones as you can. 

Now, Mamaw didn’t add “And stay off your phone,” because she didn’t need to. Mamaw and Papaw were never distracted when we visited–they were always 100% with us, and the memories are sweeter as a result.

But since 2018 is what it is, and none of us are as awesome or as wise as my Mamaw, I’ll put the pieces together and bring her advice fully into our modern culture:

Spend time with your families and loved ones, and maybe sometimes be with them 100%.
Put the phone away.
And most of all, don’t worry about losing the photo opp–worry about losing the memory, and a sweet, once-in-a-lifetime moment to connect with the people you love most.