Less than

When I was in a mood a couple of days ago, the BFF texted me not five minutes after the blog had gone live. She’s good like that.

She told me in her very BFF way, which doesn’t leave me a lot of wiggle room and always forces me to tell the truth, that she was praying for me and proud of me and saw holy in the work that I’m doing. And I had no choice but to confess that I’m struggling every darn day with feeling less than, like sitting in coffees shops and tinkering at my laptop and fighting every day to find just a few words to make life make sense isn’t enough.

Even now, I’m not sure what I mean by enough. I just am sometimes (all the time) plagued by this idea that I should be doing more.

A lot has changed for me in the last couple of years for sure, and I’m doing way less now than I was in my late twenties when I was in graduate school, interning at a counseling center, and teaching at the small church. This does not mean that my plate isn’t full, because it still is because I don’t do less well. (Jesus and I are working on this. Ugh.) But, it’s a different kind of full. It’s a slower full. Where my time in coffee shops usually meant chatting with my girls, now means I’m alone with my crazy thoughts and Microsoft Word. And when you’re used to going, slowing down can feel an awful lot like monotony.

In my clearer moments, I know this isn’t true. In my clearer moments I know that being obedient and surrendered is the most holy work, whatever that may look like. I know that every day that I get to be creative is a good day, because it’s one that honors our Creator God. I know that making friends with my baristas is no small thing, because I’m putting in the time to get to know my neighbors. And I know that writing and publishing in blog and in book is brave.

But, I have a lot of muddy moments. Because there a lot of people I know that are doing important things. I have a friend who started a company that creates medical devices and they’ve figured out a way to help people with diabetes not have to lose their limbs anymore. Or at least, I think that’s what he’s doing. Either way, that’s important work. I have several friends who work as engineers and mathematicians at the nearby Army post, and they’re figuring out ways to improve gear and armor so that these soldiers who have to go fight these heinous wars can come home to their families. That’s important work. I have mom friends who are making tiny humans and teaching them to be kind to people and to love God. That’s important work.

It’s all important work.

And it is when I think about those people and all the important things they’re doing in the world, I feel less than. Less than important, less than clear, less than brave.

Anne Lamott, patron saint of nutty writers, quotes Mother Theresa a lot and talks all the time about doing small things with great love. Saint Anne says that this is probably how God’s going to use us to make the world a better place, and if nothing else it’s what stops everything feel so nutty. And when she was at the writer’s conference I went to back in April, she said that she starts by returning phone calls and getting thirsty people glasses of water.

Okay, Saint Anne. I hear you.

I want to do important things (don’t we all?), but when did I get to the place where I think that important things have to big things? When did I start thinking that having coffee with my girls or getting to know the baristas was less than important? When did I start believing that telling stories about what God’s teaching me through my friends was less than brave? When did I start living like following God down the path He’s laid out particular for me was less than holy?

Blergh. Being human is hard sometimes.

But, I wonder if hard is the great human connector sometimes. The BFF reminded me of this the other day, after I made my confession and she reminded me that the important work of motherhood is holy and hard too. She told me in her very BFF way that I was feeling similarly and that was because I was in the middle of it, and then she reminded me that being in the middle of the hard stuff isn’t less holy. And then she said that we need to let that knowledge carry us through the middle. “It IS holy work,” she says.

That BFF. She’s good like that.

I wonder if when we find ourselves in the middle of the hard work of whatever it is that we’re doing, there’s a way to remind ourselves over and over that what we’re doing IS holy. And that it’s true whether we’re married or single, or raising kids or writing books, or visiting with old friends or making new ones. I wonder if we can take to heart what Mother Theresa and Saint Anne say, and remind ourselves over and over that doing small things with big love IS important. In fact, it’s the most important, and that’s true when we’re getting water or returning phone calls or engineering armor or creating medical devices or mothering tiny humans or having real conversations in local coffee shops. When whatever we’re doing reflects grace and God and love and light, there’s nothing less than about that.

Now…only to remember that.

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A mood

I woke up this morning in a mood. The kind of mood that made me shoo away my dog when he popped the lock on my bedroom door just to get to me, and snap at my dad when he asked if I wanted anything from the grocery store, and ignore my brother when he offered to make me a root beer float. (Yes, root beer floats are a breakfast food. Don’t question it, just accept it. It will make your world better.)

But I know when I am responding unkindly to my dog, who is my favorite person on the planet, and offers of food, I’m off kilter and I should probably get to praying, like, right that second.

I’m not sure always where these moods come from, but I know they sneak up on me now. They used to be much more frequent, as in all the time, as in the state in which I lived my life. I was an angry kid and an angrier young adult, and it took a lot of in-with-Jesus work to get to this place where I don’t think people suck all the time.

Now, I only think people suck some of the time. (I include myself in this. I am people.) And this is no small thing.

And luckily, as if God knows what He’s doing, He’s given me some really good friends. The kind of friends who truly don’t suck most of the time, because they are quick to show up, and because they keep their promises as much as they’re able, and because they say nice things to me even when I don’t deserve it. They are the kind of friends who read my blog and give me permission to use their real names when I tell our stories. They’re the kind of friends who fight with me and for me, and they’re the kind of people who aren’t afraid to ask for what they need and with whom I have complete permission to ask for what I need. They’re the kind of people who show me a little bit of Jesus’ love every day.

Which is why I text them when I get into a mood. Because they remind me at every turn that people don’t really suck. And because I tend a little bit too much toward isolation and festering, and one of the things all that in-with-Jesus work during my twenties has shown me is exactly this, and the only combat to this is to reach out to someone anyway. The only cure is community.

So today, my friend Nickie was the lucky recipient of my Ugly Text about how people suck and I suck and the only thing I want to do is get in the car and drive until I hit Michigan. Michigan, because I go there only to play with my college pals, has a pull on my heart when I’m craving only fun, only to laugh, only to play. This, of course, is often a good thing, but like all good things, it can go sour when I use Michigan as a place to avoid the hard. And Lord have mercy, today I want to avoid the hard work of writing and forgiving and being with people. (I’m an introvert. Please let me sit in my favorite red chair with a book and leave me the hell alone.)

Nickie, who is also an introvert and who is also going through the hard right now, responded with a text I couldn’t capture in one screen shot. (Lord love a wordy girl, for she is my people.)

People do suck. I second that! But you don’t. And God doesn’t (although every now and again I waiver on that), so at least there are two beings that are suckless. I’m so sorry you’re stressed though. That is the worst place to be stuck in. I know it doesn’t help, but I believe so hard in what you’re doing. I’m so proud of how you’ve let God tell your story and how much your heart is in this. I believe God is going to use your brokenness and imperfection to change lives. All He needs from you this next month is you and your willing heart. You were placed here and are who you are “for such a time as this.” Satan is all up your butt right now, but I know that you are not able to fail. Nothing that you do, or don’t do, or screw up is something that God did not account for. You cannot throw Him off His stride. You cannot ruin anything. It’s impossible. So just breathe my beautiful and amazing sister, and let yourself rest in a perfect God just for a second. You are so crazy loved.”

If that’s not a good word, I don’t know what is.

Then she adds:

Aside from that I’m feeling pretty shitty myself, so we can be cranky and quiet together tonight. You don’t know how much an impromptu road trip to someplace remote is appealing right now. I’m ready to blow this Popsicle stand and just start fresh. Cabin on a mountain overlooking the beach? You can write and I’ll paint.

Now, I’m not saying I started Googling cheap cabin getaways, but Nickie should probably start gathering her brushes.

Because when you’re in a mood – when the stress is high, and everything feels hard, and all your people are kind of sucking – remember that not all of them do all of the time. Give a little grace to your people and to yourself. Text a pal anyway. Because she might not get it right one hundred percent of the time, but she’ll probably get it when you need it.

She’ll get it, and she’ll remind you – your mood doesn’t change God, and it doesn’t make your people love you any less.  And she’ll probably still want to take a ride with you.

And that seems to me to be an awful lot like Jesus. Lord love Him.

 

House keys

210977249_da533e62a4_mI’ve had a lot of people in the last few weeks tell me how much they believe in me, and it’s been lovely really. It’s not like I don’t know that I have really spectacular cheerleaders, because a lot of them have been cheering me on in one thing or another for almost twenty years, but still…it’s especially nice to hear while I’m walking a new path that is chock full of creativity and vulnerability and the very real reality that I have no idea what I’m doing.

If I’m being honest, I wouldn’t even be on this path if my BFF hadn’t told me really pointedly that she believed in me and in my writing almost five years ago. She handed me a back a book that I loved and said that I needed to be doing what that author was doing – sharing and writing about what God was teaching her. So, I started a blog.

I wrote about what I was learning in my graduate classes and about how I saw God in the client-therapist relationship. I wrote about being a bridesmaid a whole bunch of times, and about how the Church can do better by single people. I wrote about my friends and about how they loved me so well I saw Jesus.

A couple of years ago, an editor-friend took notice of my blog and sent me a long email about how she was tired of working with authors whose ideas she couldn’t engage with, and about how she liked my writing and how she thought I had ideas that were good, and about how she thought I probably had a book in me. She said that she believed in me and this hypothetical book, and she said that it didn’t matter what the book ended up being about, she wanted in. So, I started writing a book.

I borrowed from their belief in me, and I started chasing a dream. And the more this dream becomes real, the more borrowing I find myself doing from them and from the other people who keep sending encouraging texts, Facebook messages, and emails. I borrow from my friend Melissa every time she won’t make day plans with me, so I can’t avoid writing in the afternoons. I borrow from Nickie every time we’re talking and she suggests that I write about whatever it is. And I borrow from Jesse, the one who suggested I start writing about what God is teaching me, every time we’re talking about my book and she says, “Can you believe we’re here?”   Yes, I can believe we’re here. Because in the same way it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to write a book.

And my village is awesome, and gracious, and continues to love me so well that I see Jesus.

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Sometimes that comes by email:

Ok, so this might seem weird, but I am offering my house to you as a haven where you can come if you need to get totally away from all of the “normal” places to write or whatever.  The cats will probably want to snuggle and Tornado might bite you.  It’s messy, sometimes a little bit dirty, we don’t have TV, but we do have internet!  And a swing on the back patio.  A coffee machine.  Always pizza in the freezer.  Am I missing anything?!?  Like I said, I don’t know if you’ll even want to take me up on that, but I can give you a key.

I emailed my friend Maggie back and took her up on it because the heartbeat of my life and my writing is friendship and community and making intentional choices to see God in both, and here He was right in front of me holding out a house key.

Yeah. I’ll borrow that too.

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I think sometimes people will tell you that they believe in you, and I think other times people will find a way to show you that they do. And I think both have a really important place.

We need to tell each other to chase those crazy dreams that maybe aren’t so crazy. We need to say out loud that we’re not in this life alone. We need to speak words of life and affirmation and love to one another, because we never know what God is going to stir in someone else’s heart with those words.

But, we need to give our words feet and hands every once in awhile. We need to clean houses, or buy groceries, or change diapers. We need to cook standing next each other, then sit down at dinner together and eat. We need to offer kindness as much as we offer kind words. We need to do for each other as much as we need to hear from each other.

Because sometimes love sounds like “I believe in you” and sometimes it looks an awful lot like a set of house keys.

Being happy

happiness from Flickr via Wylio
© 2008 Dawn Ashley, Flickr | CC-BY-ND | via Wylio

When I was dating someone at the beginning of the year, I didn’t tell my parents about it for three months. Even though I was living with them and seeing them every day, on date nights I would run down the stairs and out the front door and I wouldn’t even tell them goodbye sometimes. Admittedly, it wasn’t my best plan.

I figured I was an adult and didn’t have to answer to anyone about where I was going or who I was spending my time with. It turns out that’s actually a pretty juvenile way of thinking.

My friend Beth yelled at me about it one night, and made it clear that she thought my inability to talk about dating, not just with my parents but in my life, was a major problem. She said that I was getting in my own way, that I wasn’t being fair to the guy I was seeing, and that I was going to destruct my relationship by hiding him. She said that she was mad at me because I’m a smart person, but I was being so stupid. And then she yelled, “WHY CAN’T YOU JUST LET YOURSELF BE HAPPY?!”

My friend Amy simply told me I was being a child and threatened to tell my mom if I didn’t.

I told my parents at lunch the very next day.

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Even though my relationship ended, my wrestling with Beth’s question hasn’t. Trying to find the answer has actually led me to make conscious, pro-active decisions about my life that have nothing to do with dating. And I think for the first time I’m beginning to understand what it is to be happy.

How I came to be someone who believed her happiness irrelevant, I’m not sure. But, I think a lot of it starts with being raised with a theology that emphasized saving souls and serving others. My whole faith system became based on others – making sure they were cared for, listened to, carried, and saved. The result, I think, is that my relationship with Jesus suffered a bit. Because I feel guilty if I take time for myself, even if that self time is spent in the Word or prayer or being quiet all alone. Because don’t I know that there is work to be done? Don’t I know that people needed to hear about the Lord? Don’t I know there are people going to hell from Harford County?

The truth is, I know. I know there are people in my county that don’t believe in God, and I suspect that there are people in this coffee shop I’m sitting in right now who don’t have a relationship with Jesus. But, I also know that I can’t save their souls.

I can share with them all I want to, and open up my Bible with them, and read them all the verses about how God loves them and sent His Son to die for them and offers them eternal life if they believe in Him. I can hand them tracts and invite them to church and I can do all the things I’ve been told to do to bring them into the Christian faith, and they might say no. Or like the rich young ruler, they may just walk away.

So then, this is what I’m coming to know: God alone is the soul-saver. And I think that it makes God happy when I acknowledge that He is I AM and that I am not.

And this means, then, I’m in a position to build human-to-human relationships with everybody else. And in those relationships, what I share about God is rooted in my experience with Him – as sinner saved by grace, convinced of the truth of Scripture, and humbled by my inability to save myself.

And this, I know, is where my happiness lies. Not in working so damn hard to make sure everybody else is okay, but in a surrendered relationship with Christ, where what is “required” is to do justice and love mercy and walk humbly with God.

Because the truth of the matter, friends, is that talking about God makes me really happy. And sharing stories about how He’s making Himself known to my friends and to me and in our relationships together makes me happy. And drinking coffee, and reading, and learning blog design make me happy. And writing makes me happy.

And if I keep doing these things, for as long as God calls me to them, then maybe, just maybe, I have a shot at answering Beth’s question.

Why can’t I let myself be happy?

I can. And it starts now.

Pleather pants

“Hi, friend!” she yells across the coffee shop as she walks in. We haven’t seen each other in five years, but I don’t think the baristas would’ve guessed that as easily as we hug, order coffee, and fall into conversation.

She immediately shows me a picture of her nephew, born when we were fifteen, and the other nephews who have come along since. She tells me about her work and her dogs and her house, scrolling through the camera roll on her phone. She shows me her tattoos, the most obvious one on her left forearm, silhouettes of Peter Pan, Wendy, and the Lost Boys flying across a banner that reads “never grow up.” I love that tattoo because it sums her up perfectly.

Because she was always the friend that I got into trouble with, in the best sense. We share those memories with each other again, out loud, laughing at the same places in the stories that we’ve laughed at for almost twenty years.

“My mom still swears we went walking in Mooringsport that one night the sheriff called,” she chuckles. We were seventeen, visiting her grandparents in their small Louisiana town, the two of us sharing a camping trailer on their property for a week. “I keep telling her that we didn’t, even though we did sneak out to make sandwiches in Granny’s kitchen. Do you remember that?” We laugh, and I remember. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were never so sweet.

Later that summer, she went with me to visit my grandparents in their small town in New York. The one stop-light town didn’t offer much, but the next town over had an Ames and we occupied an afternoon wandering the aisles, daring each other to try on the most ridiculous clothes we could find.

We were never ones to say no to a dare, which is probably how we always wound up in trouble and is definitely how we ended up in pleather pants.

In a lot of ways, I think we’re still those same kids. She still twirls her hair when she’s nervous, and I still have a hard time making eye contact when I’m talking about something serious. She still stops mid-conversation with a “Wait, what was I talking about?” when her ADD gets the better of her, and I still bite my nails unthinkingly when I’m listening. And we still laugh a lot and too loudly when we’re together.

But, in a lot of other ways we’re different. We’ve each gotten some new edges and some new wounds we didn’t have when we were seventeen. We have different stories to tell about faith, about how we lost it for a little while and then God met us again. We go to different churches, live in different states, and like to do different things in our free time.  Whether we like to admit it or not, we have grown up.

And through it all, we have stayed friends. Because some people just stick to you, like peanut butter and jelly or a pair of pleather pants.

Moving the tire

'Jack Katz Memorial Stron Man Competition' photo (c) 2010, stu_spivack - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’ve found myself in a bad place the last couple of weeks.  Writing has been hard, and forcing myself to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard has been a battle of self-discipline. Writers say this, of course, that you just have to show up and do the work if you really want to be a writer, but I’m getting it on a soul level that I couldn’t when I was just dabbling at it, pretending to be a writer while I did other things like counseling and youth ministry. It was easier when I could distract myself with other people’s problems.

I don’t have the same distractions anymore, and now I have to sit and write and do the work that God’s been preparing me to do since I was a little kid. My dad, actually, is the one who reminds me of that all the time. Whether he does it on purpose or not, I don’t know, but he talks to me about these articles he’s reading about other people who are writers, which he wouldn’t be reading if I weren’t writing, and somehow he manages to tell me every time that I’m a writer and I couldn’t do anything else if I wanted to.

It’s true, of course, I’m a writer because writing is how I put the pieces together. It’s how I make sense of God and the world and myself. But, I think that’s part of why I’m in the bad place. Sometimes it’s hard work to live with yourself every day, and even harder work to look fear in the face and hit “publish” anyway.

And this bad places doesn’t mean I’m dark or sad, and I’m not even thinking that everyone else in the world is a turdface. But, I am a little bit sick of myself and a little bit tired of my own neuroses, and I am wondering how everyone else is the world doesn’t think I’m a turdface.

I think Anne Lammot is right and when you sit down to write all your psychiatric issues sit down next to you, and they have some feelings. And I am having some feelings.

One of my girls texted me last week to get coffee, and it always throws me off a bit when they’re not afraid to tell me the truth about who I am, but no sooner had she sat down than she said, “I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty, but I know you haven’t been yourself and it’s all over your face, and I know you’re having some feelings, and I just want you to know that they’re valid. Whatever your feelings are, they are valid. Now please work through them because I miss you.”

If I ever want to know what they truth looks like said in love, I have coffee with my girls.

Last week after Bible study I told my friend Nickie about the bad place, about what my girl had told me, about being sick of myself and how I was afraid that everyone around me was sick of me too. She said that she can’t speak for everybody else but that she’s not sick of me. And then she suggested that maybe I didn’t have to work so hard to be together all the time, because she got a lot from being with me in my not-together moments, and that my raw, in-with-Jesus moments were the ones that made her think the most.

Then she said, “It’s like you’re in one of those Strong Man competitions in those moments. Like, you’re moving a tire and all you’re energy is spent on digging in and putting one foot in front of the other. And when you’re energy is on other places, you can’t move the tire. So, maybe you need to just be in with Jesus. Dig in and write about it.”

If I ever want to know what the truth looks like said in analogies, I have coffee with Nickie.

I suspect that she’s right, too. I suspect that writing a book, or writing anything for that matter, is like moving a tire. It takes energy and focus, and sometimes you’re just gritting your teeth to put one foot in front of the other. And sometimes it all feels pretty pointless.

But, I have to wonder about what happens when the tire moves, even just a little bit. I have to wonder about the work that can get done when we just dig in with Him. And I have to wonder about what happens when I sit down with my psychiatric issues, and feel my feelings, and put fingers to keyboard. I suspect it’s the way that I find my way out of the bad places.

Because I’m a writer, and I couldn’t do anything else if I wanted to.

Finding courage: When the only way forward is open

I’ve been challenged over the last couple of weeks to be more honest in my writing, to share more of the hard pieces, not just the “God lessons” that are coming from these stories that comprise my life. Although the God lessons are good and necessary and keep me moving forward, do I have the courage to tell a story that I don’t know the lesson of yet?

What about a story that doesn’t show me at my finest?

I’ve been long impressed with Addie Zierman’s When We Were on Fire. And while so much of what she writes resonates with me, because she confronts the things about growing up in the evangelical church that rub raw in the adult world, I’m most impressed by the honesty with which she asks her questions and tells her story.  She shares the pieces that don’t show her at her finest.  Six months later, I’m still asking myself if I have the courage to do the same.

I’m not so sure that I do, at least not yet. But, after a not stellar weekend in which I had one of my not finest moments, I’m realizing a couple of things.

First, that even asking if I have the courage to tell those hard stories is the first step in finding the courage to tell them.

Second, that what my friend Beth said a couple of weeks ago when I was recounting a moment from another hard weekend is true – “The only way forward is open.”

Beth, over the course of a twenty year friendship, has earned the right to call me on my stuff.  We sat again at our favorite coffee shop, laptops open but no words being typed because the conversation was more important. She told me that in the aftermath of this recent breakup that she was afraid for me.  She was afraid that I would let this be something that I used to justify building back up the walls that I had worked so hard to take down. She was afraid that I would become angry and isolated and depressed, as I had after every breakup before.  And she grabbed my hand, and looked me in the eye, and she said, “For you, the only way forward is open.”

I’m realizing that this is a life lesson, a God lesson actually. (Sometimes figuring that out comes simply as I write. Funny that.)  C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves,

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

I keep thinking about this, about how right Lewis is – “To love is to be vulnerable.” It sounds a whole lot like my friend telling me – “The only way forward is open.”

This is how I want to move forward, from this not stellar weekend and from my stupid decision and in my life in general.  I don’t want to be ashamed to tell my stories, the ones replete with God lessons and the ones that are just ridiculously human.  I don’t want to live so worried about what people are thinking about me, about what they’re holding against me every time I have a drink or get a tattoo or pierce my nose.  I want to lean into the people who hold me accountable without casting judgments.  I want to figure out what forgiveness is really about, as others offer it to me and I offer to others and I offer it to myself.  And I want to remember on my not finest days that tomorrow is another day to try again.

Because the only way forward is open. And probably a little bit more honest.