The Road

We were on gchat. I wonder if years from now, I’ll start this story and my curly headed child will look up at me confused about some archaic structure, “What’s gchat?” in the same way that kids do now when asking about a time before cell phones. Still, I remember when gchat started, that blinking box, connecting our conversation across continents, states, or even the same room. We were on gchat and she had moved to DC and calls were difficult to come by. I’ve always had a hard time on the phone. The box blinked. “Let’s run a marathon.” I’ve been a runner since high school and do it for the sheer joy of the wind and the pounding pavement. A marathon was a challenge feeling seemingly impossible, but a good goal. “Ok.”

I never thought I would actually do it. I wanted to think I could do it, but I had also given myself an out even at the beginning to not go through with it. Still, I told her “Sure.” I mustered excitement about how it would be incredible. We imagined the scene. Two years later we signed up. We planned to do it together in DC and I started training in Atlanta. The hours it takes to train start small, but then they get longer. Five mile runs turn to nine miles, to thirteen miles, and you plan your life around the next three hours you’ll spend with the road. As the day got closer, I struggled with a challenging job and other life variables and then made the choice to run alone in a race in my own city, rather than with her. I told myself I could still give up. I didn’t have to do this.

I started running cross country my junior year of high school. My coach was a wiry old man, white haired and no time for excuses. He had lived a lot of life and appeared to expect us to embrace the pain and thrill of it. This meant he expected us to run every day of the week. It was his proven method. It was his holy grail. He expected it because he was also out there running, every day. That fall, I planned my life around this assumption: that if I got out there, every day, it would change me. So, I made sure I got plenty of sleep and ate during classes to carb load before runs in the afternoon. My weekends were treks that started before the sun was up on buses to old horse racing trails. Even on race days, we trained. We ran a mile before our race and a mile after and we always sprinted the last 100 yards. Over and over. Regardless of how I felt.

I loved running. I hated running. And, it slowly became the place I found myself. I went there to think. I went there to cry. I went there to laugh, to fight, and simply to be. I could feel whatever I needed to. And, I could keep moving. Running became my solitude. The road doesn’t care what you look like or if you failed your last assignment. She doesn’t care about the fight you just had. She doesn’t care about your promotion or the little money you have in your bank account. The seeming good or the bad. She asks you to get out there and accepts whatever you’ve got. She just asks you to show up. 

When I ran that day, I had a couple of friends who followed the course and met up with me along the way, at the parts I felt like I could barely continue on. When my phone died and my music gave out and they let me swap with theirs. When I had a particularly long hill. And, just to say, “You can do it” and then “You did” when I finished, tired and overwhelmed with emotion.

If you ask anyone who has run a marathon about what it felt like to finish, I wonder if they’ll struggle with the sentences. There are few words to really speak when in the midst of a victory. Nothing really does it justice. When you’ve put every last ounce of energy and hope into something and then it’s done. The pure joy and utter exhaustion.

As a counselor, I think about how I feel sitting across from someone who is fighting for their life; like they’re running a marathon, and I couldn’t be prouder and more honored to be there with whatever they bring. I want to see their face and the triumph as they show up through the pain. I want to be there when they get to the other side of that finish line and find the person they are and the strength they have. That’s what the road hopes for. That’s what she taught me.

Crawling Home

At the end of December, I found myself sketching sofas. I was sitting with friends, a crowded room, laughing and planning the year to come. We do this every year, gather together bringing this past year’s joy and hurts, victories and failures, scraping our plates for the last taste of what we have been given, savoring gratitude. Then, we speak into existence our hopes and goals for the dawn that will rise as the new year unfolds, our best intentions and ideals. Or at least that is what I like to imagine it as. As I looked at the blank page in front of me, I slowly started carving out the white for deep lines and folds of penciled fabric. They felt comforting as if I was creating something safe to hold me, a nest that I wasn’t ready yet to leave.

It’s the middle of March and that couch has absorbed a lot of tears. A salty mess of uncertainty, fear, hope, and sadness. In less than two months, I will graduate. I have already accepted a job that I never thought possible. As that looms, I have tried to imagine what will be next. I look back on those short months before when I wrote these things. The future, well it’s terrifying. Funny how something with so much wonderful potential also leaks of so much possible hurt. And, because I am afraid, I practice devastation. I rehearse it as if then I will have some power over the pain. 

I watched a TED talk the other day by Elizabeth Gilbert about this continuum we exist in. She supposed that perhaps both success and failure are the same in the way we experience their powerful sense of altering self. The potential or realization of either throws our balance off. The resilient continuously relocate their center. They crawl their way back to what they love.  Today, I sit again on this sofa, my bones weary from the constant back and forth of miles in my mind and emotions. There are still so many unanswered questions. Today, I crawl back to this sacred space surrounded by pages and prayers. I write my way back to this center. There is a red tulip on the counter that is begging to open. And, the sunlight is coming in, cautiously, through open blinds. My laundry is rolling around in the dryer, humming to the tune of consistency. It is the sound of coming home again.

Letting Go

Letting go is purple. Letting go is paint, layered, full of grey. A whole lot of grey. Letting go is a canvas of pines and the smell of smoke and the trail that you can barely see. Letting go is uncertainty of what will come. Because letting go is not running. And, It is not holding on. It is not pushing away. And, so it can feel paralyzing, as if you’ve lost all feeling in your limbs.

We are connected in more ways that we have ever been. It is so seemingly easy to find or be found, to follow the screen of faces my finger scrolls down. We are the helicopter kids, now all grown up with longer limbs that still don’t touch the sky. We have lost our backyards and the woods to fear and scripted programming when life is anything but predictable. These carefully constructed cardboard lives we lead are two dimensional. There is no breath here. It is terrifying to notice the air in our lungs, the bodies we have and their fragility.

“What are you reading right now?”

Well, that’s hard to say. “To be honest, I’m not sure. I have a few stacks of books. Most of them haven’t been finished. They are unresolved. I think a lot of my life feels unresolved.”

I have been piling up books, across the squeaking hardwood floor, on top of that scratched sidewalk-found chair, and covering the bright red table. They’re under my bed, squeezed between the pallet frames. A few are hidden beneath the nightstand, keeping company with dust bunnies. Some have been opened; others never even cracked. Many though, have at least a few chapters read, earmarks lovingly folded to a place I’ll come back.

I promised I’d come back. Right now, I’m having a hard time sticking though, so I spread them out, trying to string together the meaning in phrases and sentences, hoping that maybe the story will begin to make some sort of sense. There has to be a bigger narrative here if I could just get my hands on it.

Letting go feels like broken promises, as if we just found out we don’t have some cosmic control of the universe. It feels unsafe. It is embracing the unknown without trying to grab hold of it. Destiny, vocation, purpose cannot be clutched; it slips through your fingers. Trust me, I’ve tried.

I thought that letting go meant starting over, throwing it all out. It was loose and open and careless.

Maybe it doesn’t. Maybe when we’re frozen and numb, it’s the only way to get back to the slow, painful process of moving. Of rebuilding. Even when the resolution isn’t clear. Maybe letting go is saying what you mean. It is the space between breaths. Maybe it’s this distance that creates the possibility of something beautiful if we give it room for the oxygen to rush in.

Save Yourself

This is what burnout looks like: bare feet.

It was during my last summer directing children’s programs; we had a field trip scheduled. Field trips were one of the students’ favorite activities, and at times, incredibly tiring for staff. The reality is that driving vans full of excited, loud children to a location full of other excited, loud children, can require a lot of patience and vigilance. Not to mention the goal of not swapping kids with any other groups along the way. This field trip was one though that my staff was thrilled about because we were going to Lego Land. They had actually been looking forward to it for weeks.

I remember the phone call with our partner who gave us the tickets right beforehand. “Remember to make sure the children have socks,” she said.

This was important because that was something many of these kids might not have on their own, or even if they did, the probability of them forgetting them was pretty high. During winter months, we usually had at least one child every day whom we had to chase down the road because they had left their coat lying lonely on the gym floor. But, these were the summer months in Georgia and heat was everywhere, as if the pavement was a slow cooking frying pan. The kids would all be wearing sandals or cheap flip flips that would probably break a few weeks in from the wear and tear of quick dodgeball turns.

She told me this need for socks the day of at 8 am. The kids were leaving at 9 am. I had every intention of having socks from our clothing closet. I remember thinking, “Yes, of course, this is important.” And, then I hung up the phone and there was a knock at my door and crisis after crisis walked in. I couldn’t breathe again till after 11. The next call I received was from our staff member at Lego Land asking me where I had put the socks on the bus. They had looked everywhere.

This was when my appearance of put-together, making-it-work, oh-yeah-I-can-do-it-all shattered. It was that small moment when I pictured 48 bare feet hanging off a bench watching others play and there was nothing I could do about it now.

If I sat down (and I did then) and did a step by step analysis of how it all broke down, I would have had to back up weeks ago, even months to when I started believing the mis-truth that “I’m doing just fine. This is just the way it has to be.” Because the reality was that I was making it work and it was also entirely unsustainable. I had built a building that was trying to meet everyone else’s needs, but not my own. And, I was even failing at that. There were so many other stories that were out of my control that last year. Stories of heartbreak and neglect and hopelessness. There were also other stories of laughter. I tried to pay attention to those. The sad ones I buried in deep pockets that grew heavier and heavier till it became harder and harder to move.

But, when I think of that summer, these intense emotions specifically about bare feet come up. Even writing this now brings feelings of familiar shame because who falls apart over socks? Well, it’s because it wasn’t the socks. Maybe you already saw that. It was the shame all along. This is something that’s difficult for those of us who look life in the face and have decided that they should be more than human. The ones who empty as if by doing so they can save others without first accepting their own pain and needs. And, that shame is why we keep silent as if we should be able to handle it. We will be affected. We will fall down. That is the full truth.

None of us are meant to live in burning buildings. Not me. And, not you. Save yourself first. Those that go back in will leave by certain miracles and because they continue to assess their own need. Take the time to recognize the pain you hold. Do the humble and valuable work of knowing your weakness. And, if you do choose to accept the risk to fight for lives, be sure you can ask others for help; you will need someone to remind you again to save your own life and that your wounds are holy. They have always been that way.

Tend to the Wilderness Inside of You

Somehow in my never ending visits to the library as a child, stacks and stacks of books, I never read Where the Wild Things Are. When the movie came out when I was in college and the general population oohed and ahhed over their many memories of childhood bedtime stories, I felt left out. I even felt in some ways frustrated with my mother for never steering me towards the wonder of the world of Maurice Sendak. How could she have not included this literary masterpiece in my childhood education? I decided to fix that, so I found a copy and read it myself for the first time as a 22 year old. Children’s books read as an adult can be profoundly meaningful. Again, I felt small and swept up into a world both so otherly and so familiar. A good children’s book will do that. It’s the simple truth. What I love about the book is this entrance into an inner world of imagination that is in essence a wilderness. It is here Max comes face to face with himself and his beliefs and even his own wildness.

I currently live in a place that is mostly concrete. Concrete and steel and some graffiti art that a visionary has used to echo beauty in a place where people mostly look up rather than exactly where they are. I love art for that reason. It stops you. Arrests you. Makes you consider what is here rather than where you’re headed. Sometimes this city feels so tamed. The traffic, the people passing on the street, the bustle like ants in a never-ending maze, repeating the same tunnels all contained. A predictable chaos. Everyone with their lattes and schedule and striving. This is how I feel on days when I feel trapped. Trapped by the day to day. Limited by the steel and by time and by my own body.

There is an inner wilderness with which I have begun to be forced to come face to face. There are so many days where engaging it seems overwhelming, and I have chosen rather to flow with the norms and to numb the disconnection I feel. I’ve begun to recognize that when I start to feel closed in, something inside of me grows unsettled. There is a fear and a pain that begins to bang and clang against imaginary walls, desperate to escape.  I’m slowly finding these edges of myself, the cliffs that pushing past will leave me falling, bruised from the impact of the ways I try to manage my pain.  The admission that my internal world is not the same as what the external is showing is complicated. It’s gnawingly frustrating, even a little shaming, this feeling of not fitting, overwhelming my own skin, afraid it will all spill out and hurt those around me. I push it down and look for an escape. I want to start again, unfamiliar and anonymous, where what is around me is startling and new and strange and distracting.

The last four years of my life have kept me, held me, in this city with these people and I am thankful. Over and over, when my eyes have looked for an exit, my feet have been held by a commitment to the process of this vocation. Instead of journeying out, I have been asked and continue to be asked to march into the wildness of my own heart and to accept it’s chaos and beauty. Its limits and its possibility. Its sin and redemption. It’s all there if I will only look. I will choose that journey. How else will I believe it for anyone else?

You Have Everything You Need

If you have a garden and a library. Cicero said that.

I was explaining to a friend the other day that feeling when it seems you run into a part of yourself that you haven’t seen in years. It is always a little strange at first, perhaps even off putting, like that familiar face in a grocery store that causes you to duck behind cereal boxes, intently reading the labels because there could be something life changing there. Other times, it’s as if serendipity has worked her magic and you stare in disbelief in hope, yet still with some angst, because we know how this ended last time. In this case, it was a little of both. This was the year of the rediscovery of the novel and memoir in a way that I have been swept up. After a four year grad school journey, the spined book and I have had our ups and down, never broken up, but definitely needed space. But, it has wooed me back.

Here is my 2014 book list that I will possibly (have) talk(ed) about in an obsessive way.

Girls Like Us by Rachel Lloyd
memoir : social justice, mental health
This is the best book I have read about CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children) and DMST (domestic minor sex trafficking). Please read.

Still: Notes on a Mid Faith Crisis by Lauren Winner
memoir : faith
Lauren is one of those writers that I would just like to drink whiskey with and talk about life.

I know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
memoir
I waited to read this book for too long. If you haven’t, you need to read it.

Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
faith : theology
Grace. That is what this book is about. Grace and a call towards change. If you love OR hate the f-word, you might be surprised (in the best way) by how it’s handled.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed
memoir
I got lost in the brilliance of the words and meaning and continue to threaten my roommate that I’m moving out to live in the woods. This is not a story about hiking; it’s a story about living.

If You Find This Letter by Hannah Brencher
memoir
She tells a tale of expectations, losing, and finding self and hope. I laughed out loud and cried an ocean. Incredibly beautiful and highly relatable if you have ever wanted to do something good for the world and love a good pop culture reference.
Preorder here.

My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman
faith : art
I bought this as a gift for friend and began reading before wrapping it (oh, don’t judge me; you’ve done it too). Thirty pages in, I bought two more copies for myself. If you are a writer, poet, artist, faith seeker, it will grip and tangle you.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
novel : relationships, cross-culture, race, mental health
This is my first read of Chimamanda’s books and I’m hooked. She is both funny and thoughtful and her storytelling draws you in.

Now I am working on next year’s list, though most of 2014’s books found me rather than the other way around. I’m also trying to keep a plant alive. We’ll see.

Real Christmas Trees

It’s December 27th. All our presents are still sitting under the tree. It’s a real tree; we switched a few years back from the towering style that came in pieces in a box. You had to spread each branch out intentionally filling in the gaps of evergreen, trying to hide the metallic core. I was the one each year designated to fill in those spaces. I don’t know if it was because I was actually talented in the art of fake spruce or if I was the only one who became obsessed by their placement, putting meaning into each bend as if it was art or salvation. I prefer real trees.

The siblings have now almost all rolled in from various states, nephews and nieces in tow, and I’m left again overwhelmed by it all. For the last few weeks, I’ve been sitting in the waiting. Holding onto it as if it was the season I’d been wanting all year long. And, perhaps some of the truth is that it has been what I’ve wanted all year long. It has given me permission to mourn, to speak into the night – hope for something different. This waiting is the tension I notice sitting in my stomach most days. I need joy to show up.

But, the second truth is that sometimes I’m not sure I’m ready for the waiting to end. I feel I am afraid I will be like that child on Christmas day that after strewing wrapping and strings and paper all around ends up sitting in it all, saying, “but is that all?” And, for that reason, I delay. As the expectation grows, I grow more anxious. Perhaps, we should just forget the whole thing. I am afraid of my own disappointment. What if after all of this, I am holding nothing?

So the real truth then is that any ending terrifies me. And, so I gather, all these things, these people, these places, and hold on for dear life. We build ourselves mansions with these parts that were never meant to be walls and furnishings.

I am learning, instead, that waiting is a letting go. Waiting is a wondering. It is participation in this life with all it’s heartaches and small victories. It is noticing what is here and now and then watching it go, feeling the joy and the pain. It takes all of you.

If you asked me to describe what I believe will happen at the end of all of this, I would probably fumble over my words. I know that because there are days when I have tried to explain the belief that seems built into my bones despite the doubt of my skin that tries to shake it. I never feel like I have really said much of anything; maybe it was a metaphor or a tenant that doesn’t really explain what faith is. I say that mostly out of my own frustration because the truth is that I would like it to be built much sturdier. I wish it felt like a wide, wire cable. If anything it’s more like a perennial that grows, seemingly dies, but is dormant, ready to come again when it feels like winter will never end.