Choosing Our Lives Means Having This One

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“There was another life that I might have had, but I am having this one.” ~Kazuo Ishiguro

I rummaged through four plastic bins in the basement before I found them. The three photo albums and four school yearbooks sat tucked into an assortment of hand-stitched pillows, a sombrero, a dirt-smudged doll, and a pair of maracas. My childhood ephemera. I was searching for my prom photos to show my daughter what the 90’s looked like on her mother. Big hair, electric blue satin dress, and sequins galore. I couldn’t find the photograph I was looking for, but I found so much more. The memories came drifting back on the scent of cracked albums and old paper and yellowing ink.

I often find it hard to reconcile the childhood me and the forty-one year old version. Lately, in my journaling and in my prayer time, I’ve been trying to return to the girl in the photographs. Trying to recall her, to remember her with clarity, to see what remains of the little one I used to be. I suppose it’s because my children are growing older, and it’s given me pause when I think about what they’re like now and who they could be. They are old enough to hear and appreciate my own childhood stories, most of which I can’t recall with much clarity.

I have tried to write my way into my own memories, the ones clinging to the edges, shimmering like something once dreamed. I want to unravel what of the five year old me remains. What part of her led me to this life? What part of her dreamt this life of husband and children and life abroad and writing into being? I’m sure she’s still here somewhere.

There are so many ways in which the years can unravel, so many paths for our lives to take. It’s important to remember what choices led us to where we are as adults. What did our inner five year old know and love and how do we see her alive in us today?

As I raise my kids, one of my biggest goals is for them to become more fully themselves. This means trying new things on for size and seeing how these new experiences and expressions settle into their skin. Some will wrap themselves around their soul in a perfect fit, some will be outgrown in time, and some ways of living will never suit them.

In order for me to live more fully in this life, as my true self, I have to remember that I could have chosen other paths to follow, but this is the life I am having. This is the life I chose, and the life that chose me. My life is an amalgam of five-year old me and who I’ll be at fifty.

And it is beautiful and heartbreaking and the perfect fit for the skin I’m in.

Better Together: On Self-Reliance and Asking for Help

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“When Moses’ hands grew tired, they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it. Aaron and Hur held his hands up–one on one side, one on the other–so that his hands remained steady till sunset.” Exodus 17:12

I’m a sucker for online personality quizzes. I took one recently with less than flattering results. According to the test, I’m anti-social, which is a code word extroverts like to use for the rest of us. However, I scored high on the self-reliance portion of the quiz, and after patting myself on the back, I realized that this quality sounds great on paper, but is a double-edged sword when it comes to belonging and building community.

I’m not one to crowd source, ask for help, or solicit a bunch of people for their opinions. I ask God and I ask my husband. Later, I might tell my friends and family about it. Self-reliance has the faint whiff of toddlerhood clinging to it. As my daughter used to say when she was three, “No, mommy. I do it!” My life has been a series of “I do it” moments stacked one on top of the other, building a wall between me and the loving people who surround me in community.

In general, I’m not a fan of most ideas that don’t originate with me. Does this sound horrible? It is. My husband brought home a flat of yellow and purple pansies to plant in the garden, greeting our guests on Easter, and I was annoyed with him because I didn’t think of it myself. I would have chosen lavender and white. How. Dare. He.

He ignored my protests and with great generosity of spirit asked me where to place them in the mulched beds. When he finished planting, our garden looked as if Spring slept there overnight and she woke up fresh-faced the next morning. I swallowed the bitter pill of remorse that weekend, but my husband offered me kindness. He covered up my reaction with a shower of petals.

Recently, a project I’ve been dreaming up and laboring over and crafting for a year, was soundly rejected in its current form. I was crushed. Confused. Disappointed. But, uncharacteristically, rather than curl in on myself, and hide behind the wall my self-reliance built, I reached out to a fellow writing friend. Then another.  I shared my frustration with my mother, my mother-in-law, and an entire group of writing pals online. Then I went on a walk with one of my best girlfriends. I wore sunglasses to conceal my red eyes, but I couldn’t conceal my heart from her. And I am better for it.

When I reached out to the people in my life, they reached back and extended a hand of friendship to me. They commiserated. They laughed. They got angry. They sent emails and vox messages and took notes and wrote blog posts inspired by my experience. More than that, they prayed for me. Their wit and wisdom literally changed the course of my project and my response to it. My community of friends and fellow misfits and prayer warriors and artists held up my hands like Aaron and Hur held up the arms of Moses in the desert.

Self-reliance is a fantastic quality, but it can isolate us from one another. It denies our family and friends the opportunity to speak into our lives, sharing their hard-won wisdom bought by experience. It holds them at arms length rather than allowing them to hold us up. Self-reliance can keep us from the depth and richness of a sisterhood built on sharing our ideas, our joy, and our pain.

It was a revelation to discover how many Aarons and Hurs I have in my life. The garden of my life is rich with sisters–a vibrant bed full of petaled pansies. I am surrounded by color and life and beauty, and for too long, I have denied myself the pleasure of reveling in it.

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Do you have a community of women who support and rally around you? If so, thank them today and return the favor. If not, how can you begin building belonging among the women in your life?

Reclaiming Our Place

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A small creek ran through our neighborhood of manicured lawns and look-alike condominiums. Thick walls of gray rock under wire-mesh netting sat on either side of the water’s edge, containing it, keeping all things wet and wild within its borders. When I was a child, I loved to explore there. I loved to escape the stale air-conditioned spaces of our two-bedroom unit and feel the submerged rocks, slick with algae, slip under my feet.

We creek-walked in the shallow places, but the water grew deep near the neck of the small woods bordering the development. There, the neighborhood kids and I spent hours sitting on thick rocks jutting out of the water watching sunfish and crayfish and water striders scuttle by. “The Woods” became the backdrop for every summer day adventure… 

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Today, I have the pleasure of writing at You Are Here on the theme of reclaiming place. To read the rest of the story, click here. Have a look around and read some of the fantastic pieces on roots, identity, and place while you’re there.

When You Want To See Results For Your Labor

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For the first twenty-one years of my life, I listened to my dad preach to a small crowd of believers gathered in stackable metal chairs in a store-front basement every Sunday. He’s a natural, born to teach the gospel from a pulpit or a street corner or sitting at the head of the dining room table. When my dad traveled out of town on a Sunday, my mom often filled in for him. She stood in the pulpit: poised, gentle, firmly grounded in God’s word. A streak of nerves never coursed through either one of them.

The two times I’ve been asked to speak in front of a group, I nearly vomited from anxiety. My first experience with a pulpit fell on Teen Sunday, when the youth group (made up of exactly five people) was asked to run the service–from leading worship to special music to preaching. As the resident pastor’s kid, I was chosen to speak that morning. Also, everyone else refused to do it.

The details remain fuzzy, but the trembling eventually shook some words out of me and into the silver microphone on the black stand. I encouraged the parents in the room to never give up on their kids because eventually their influence would bear fruit. It came from a place of child-like faith and complete naiveté. I straddle the line between cold hard reality and sunny optimism since I’ve had children of my own. I have no idea what inspired this line of thinking as a fourteen year old because I was the goodest of good girls. My parents and I had exactly zero experience with rebellion or rejection of the family faith.

I tripped my way back to my seat and sat shivering with nerves until the end of service. I heard a few reluctant “good job’s” from the congregants, who clearly pitied me and wondered how my preaching parents could give birth to someone so completely inept at public speaking. I let Teen Sunday sink deep into my muscle memory–accompanied by knot-like fear and trembling. In my mind, it bore no fruit.

A few weeks later, our church pianist pulled my mom aside and said how deeply moved she’d been by the service. She’d considered leaving when she heard the youth group was running the show, and she sat for most of the morning with a sour look across her face from the front row. And yet, something of the seeds we had sown that morning took root in her heart.

She was a new mother, locked up with fear as a companion in parenting. She worried about mothering her girls, and something about a small group of teenagers stumbling and stammering their way through worship and preaching, offered her the key to release fear and unlock hope in her parenting. She reached out and grabbed it.

A few disappointments have come my way lately. Personally, professionally, and specifically in my parenting. I’ve asked myself, how much longer will I throw seeds to the wind and never see them take root, grow, and blossom? I ask myself this when I already know the answer.

At best, it may be months, years, even decades later. At worst, I may never see the results of the seeds I’ve sown in my lifetime.

But, I believe down to my very bones that I will live to see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

His goodness is not dependent on our children bearing good fruit. His goodness is not dependent on our definition of success. His goodness is not dependent on our abilities or lack-thereof. God’s goodness is dependent on nothing but his own character, and his character is rooted in love, not our labor.

I am preaching this to my heart today, and I’m preaching it to you without a pesky pulpit standing in my way. He who began a good work in us will carry it on to the day of completion. He is ever faithful. Do you believe this? Do I believe this? If we do, then it changes everything. God’s faithfulness comes first, and my fear, my scattering of seed, my striving come in second.

Hope is not lost. Keep sowing, friends. In time, we will reap a harvest.

How to Gather a Life

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The week we moved into our new, sparsely-furnished rental house in London, I realized I needed something of my own to make the place feel like we lived there. Without something of us, it looked as if we’d embarked on Rent-a-Life rather than rent a home. Our dishes, clothes, and a few poorly chosen decorative items (collectible teddy bears, I’m looking at you) sat in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, bobbing across the sea, making their way from our East Coast past to our United Kingdom future.

It was a fifteen-minute walk from my little house with the bright blue door to the Charity Shop. A charity shop is the English version of a thrift shop, a place where one could find almost anything from old lady brooches and children’s clothing to tattered furniture and portable potties. After an enormous international move, our finances were stretched thin. I had a few British pounds in my pocket, and I needed to spend it wisely. Naturally, I spent it on something that would be dead in a week—a pretty little posy of flowers from the local grocery.

Flowers in hand, I stopped by the Charity shop for my next purchase—a second hand vase of thick, wavy glass. Just big enough to hold a few stems of something light and green and lovely. I came home, filled the glass with water, cut the stems of the flowers, and breathed easy for the first time since our arrival. There, on the kitchen table, sat proof that even the smallest effort to make us feel at home made a tangible difference. We might survive the upheaval after all, and I had daisies on the table to prove it.

Over the three and a half years we lived abroad, I mapped a carefully curated Charity Shop route throughout my little corner of London. I faithfully visited each shop every few weeks, bringing home a random assortment of items someone else had discarded. Every time I brought home something new to me, I thought about the hands that had previously held it. Who knit the little hand-made doll with the jaunty yellow hat now sitting on my daughter’s bed? Who gossiped with her best friend over this teapot around a table set under gray skies? Who turned the pages of this novel before me?

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I began assembling a life out of the everyday, worn-out wares of women who had gone before me, women who had raised children and read books and warmed their hands and souls over cups of strong tea. Gathering forgotten treasures from the charity shop helped me build a real, full life for my own family. I didn’t have to settle for renting one.

During our years living in London, I collected not only dust-covered books and vintage tea sets, but friendships and experiences. I collected photographs and prayers and long-walks on urban streets. I collected memories. I learned we create our lives from the things we gather, and so I gathered people and places and things with purpose.

Most of the lovely bits I gathered from my charity shop curation, have gone on to live other lives elsewhere, although the tea set still sits proudly in my china cabinet while the knit doll hides, gathering dust in the basement. The thick-bottomed vase disappeared years ago, and I keep hoping it will show up, miraculously. Even if it doesn’t, in my mind’s eye, I see it sitting on a rented, nicked-up and dented kitchen table in the terraced house with the blue door. I see it as the promise of a life gathered, full, expectant. I see it filled with a handful of daisies.

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What are you gathering to make a life?