Practicing Peace in the Face of Fear

I am afraid of heights. Tight spaces. Physical pain. My husband’s driving, and dying in a car accident (see husband’s driving). I am afraid of the vice of Vegas. Snakes and scorpions. Running out of gas on a lonely highway, or losing my way while driving. More than anything, I am afraid of the wild unknowns that wait for me around every corner. Fear is a frequent and unwelcome companion.

When my husband first proposed the idea of traveling west for our annual summer vacation, I felt the immediate tug of apprehension on the hem of my heart. What ifs jostled for space with why nots. As I sat curled up on the sofa, he grinned while photos of red rock formations and joshua trees flashed across his computer screen. He lured me in with the promise of new sights, scents, and the salt-licked waves of the Pacific Ocean. He knows the subtle ways fear strangles adventure, and he persisted until I could see nothing but the fingerprints of God imprinted deep into the dry earth of the desert. I wanted to run my hands across the grooves of them.

We spent two weeks tracing the hand of God across the American west this month, and every day I woke up to the hot breath of a fresh fear. My small-time, irrational fears may seem insignificant–something to be ignored, or brushed aside–but I have spent a lifetime trying to conquer them. Fear is a living, breathing beast that threatens to steal my joy, my presence, and my peace.

I didn’t vacate on my vacation–every nerve ending sparked like live wire as I faced my fear of heights while hiking the Grand Canyon, drove hours through the stark beauty of the Mojave Desert while my husband napped beside me, and as I sat wide-eyed through the terrifying switch-backs zig-zagging down the steep hills of Sedona. I drove an ATV in the dry heat of the Arizona desert, and managed to lose my way on an electric bike on the hills near Solana beach. It was everything an adventure should be.

I returned home feeling like a kid who accepts a challenge and repeatedly waits for her mama’s eyes to turn her way, “Did you see me, Mom? Did you see me?” I am proud of myself for accepting small challenges because it gives me courage to face the larger ones that will surely come my way. I wasn’t fearless, but I took courage by the hand, even when that hand shook and nervously clutched its way towards freedom.

I discovered that standing up to fear is the same thing as practicing peace. It’s an invitation for peace to make its home in me when I feel the least capable and least confident. Peace rarely descends like a dove, instead it is practiced through small acts of courage which put fear in its rightful place.

Fear continues to keep company with me, but it takes up a smaller space today than it did last week, last month, even last year. If you find yourself in a place of fear today, whether small or large, I encourage you to consider what it would look like for you to practice peace through small acts of courage.

I’m cheering for you.

How to Navigate a Season of Endings

As summer approaches, bringing with it big changes in the life of our family, I find myself feeling out of sorts. I am graduating from my MFA program, and I don’t know what’s next in my writing life. I will no longer spend long days reading books with a critical eye and writing papers based on them. No one will be waiting at the other end of an email for my next essay. I will have a new degree in creative writing, and no tangible way of putting it to use on paper.

Just as I graduate, so will my seventeen year old daughter. Her entire life spreads out in front of her like a blank canvas. Everything is before her, and this stands in stark contrast to my own experience. I often wonder what lies ahead for me when my own canvas is already full of color, spread in thick strokes towards the outer edges. So much lies behind me. So much of my canvas is already painted.

No one told me that releasing a daughter into the world makes a mother dig deep into her own story of becoming. It is both a rejoicing and a mourning–for who I could have been, for the surprise of who I am today, and for what my girl will be. I don’t think I have the words yet for what it feels like to let her go or how hard it is to set my younger self free in the process.

I’ve reached a season of endings, and I can only see the faint outline of new beginnings ahead. Perhaps you are out of sorts or in a season of endings too. I don’t have five steps to fix it, but I do have a few guiding principles I hope will keep us moving forward into the unknown with more freedom and less fear.

Treat yourself and your open-ended questions with kindness.

In his poem Unquiet Vigil, Brother Paul Quenon writes “Be Kind. Myself, to myself, be kind.” When I read those words, I was most struck by the punctuation. Be Kind. Period. No caveats, no qualifications. Be kind to myself no matter how complicated, effervescent, difficult, or joyful the feelings. Be kind to the past me, the present me, and the me who exists in the future. This feels impossibly hard some days, but with practice, it grows easier.

Learn to love the questions.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”~ Rainer Maria Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet.

I want to place these words like beads on a length of string and finger them like beads of prayer. During a season of change, the questions I ask are more important than the answers I think I need. The answers rarely announce themselves, but rather they arrive in the quiet of living into the questions.

Hope and wait quietly.

“It is good that one should hope and wait quietly..” ~Lamentations 3:26. I often wait with fear as my loud companion. Fear drives away quiet, whereas hope invites it in. Living into the questions with a spirit of kindness allows for hope to have its way. I can ask myself questions about the future without giving in to the cacophony they can create in my soul. I do this by entering into a season of unknowns with a posture of open handedness rather than entering with closed fists. I can’t receive my past or my future when I grasp for answers or fight the questions every step of the way.

In this season of endings, I want to enter open, free, unencumbered by a need to orchestrate my own feelings into something like a mathematically correct, classical symphony. This is jazz, baby. There are no neat resolutions, but I’m improvising my way through the notes, receiving them as they come, with hope and kindness and love for unexpected melodies.

When the sign points home

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To reach the finish line at the Lucerne half-marathon, you have to run straight up to this wall of road signs. When all of those arrows stare you square in the face, you feel as if you are standing at the cross roads of the world. Shall I go north or south? Italian or French? Over the mountain or through? Choices, so many choices.

The sheer number of them used to cripple me. I feared making the wrong decision because what if I chose badly? What if I got lost or missed the detour or took an exit too early and missed out on my destination altogether? For a long time, I chose not to make too many decisions in the hopes God would make them for me. I limited my own journey with pessimism and fear. I assumed if God intended for me to travel in a particular direction, a single sign would appear pointing THIS WAY.

And then I grew up and had kids and moved countries three times and realized God created free will for a reason. Sometimes He leads us to one specific destination, but He is just as likely to hammer up a wall of signposts with exits pointing in every direction, and offer us the freedom to choose. His will becomes less a map and more a compass, and even in the choosing, He always remains our true North.

After many years, a number of bad decisions, and a few brilliant ones which deserve a champagne toast, I look at these road signs and I see endless possibilities. Endless ways to get lost and be found again. Endless detours and roundabouts and destinations. I rather like traveling through life this way.

I hoped the next few months would be more of the same, more freedom and more choices. Instead, my husband and I have experienced a narrowing of the road. A straight path beats its way back to a single destination. Gone are the detours and the exits. We are moving home and right now home doesn’t have a lot to offer. There is no house or perfect job. There is no publishing contract, no community, no grand plan, and no time to tie all of these loose ends up into a tidy bow. There is the road, and a single sign pointing THIS WAY–>, and so I resolve to pull out my compass and allow it to guide me home.

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Where are you in your journey? Headed in one direction or reveling in the choices?

When you feel anything but brave

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We spent last Saturday night in the mountains. More than anything, more than chocolate and cheese and a public transport system that always runs on time, more than all of this, I will miss these mountains. It snowed most of the day, and the sky remained overcast and star-less that night, as we joined a group of winter enthusiasts (I have another name for these people, which I shall refrain from sharing) for a snowshoe hike. Some folks wore headlamps, but before setting off, the guide requested we turn off all the lights. I prefer to walk in the dark, in the quiet, he said. And those with lamps clicked them off and the chatter hushed and we walked over snow under an ink sky.

The feel of skimming over the top of the snow made me think of walking on water, and how it must feel to rise above the very thing you expect to sink you. I’ve lived through many a day, week, even month where I expected this overseas experience to sink me. But God, ever gracious, ever-present and ready to stretch out His arm to save, helped me walk it through.

I am weak. I know this. Other women sometimes call me brave and they say, I could never do it–I could never leave my town, my friends, my ability to run to Panera when I don’t want to cook dinner. And I try to receive it as a compliment, but I always feel false because the truth is, I can’t do it either. I have many days when my husband flies away and the children lose their minds and I want only to feel solid ground beneath me. I don’t want the splashing of the waves at my feet and a Savior who calls to me, Come.

My faith is small. And yet, Christ has bid me to come, to walk, to grow this speck of a faith seed into a tree bearing good fruit. I’m learning sometimes He does this in the dark, in the hush, under cloudy skies with weird things strapped to my feet, so I might learn to rise above.

When we reached the crest of a hill before turning back, the guide had us gather round. The mountains rose up on every side, surrounding us in shadows, ancient witnesses. Our guide began to chant and the others soon joined in. They ended with a rebel yell, voices rising and falling into the valley of snow. A shout of victory.

Compulsory fun and the art of fearlessness

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This winter, I decided to end a tortured relationship with my snowboard. After my first season snowboarding, we moved quickly from a love/hate relationship to a hate/hate relationship. One filled with frustration, borderline rage, and more than a few cuss words. It is a fact:  I am not cut out for winter sport, or so I thought, until my husband got wind of my decision and decided I should switch to skiing. He wants to be one of “those families”, the kind who post cheerful photos of helmet-clad, pink cheeked faces on facebook. I ungraciously agreed, and we entered into a level of pre-skiing grumpiness I never believed possible.

Naturally, I refer to my grumpiness as well as my penchant for disliking any idea that I didn’t come up with first.

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My hang-up appears to stem from forced participation in group lessons with people who, quite obviously, are there to make me look bad. It might also be related to the falling. Good Lord, the falling. And then there’s the t-bar, which I lovingly refer to as the spawn of Satan. I also don’t have a lot of interest in spending my Sabbath taking part in compulsory outdoor fun. It just feels wrong, and I feel pretty confident Jesus agrees.

Yesterday, we had our third lesson and afterwards my husband insisted we give a “small” slope a try as a family. I put small in quotes, because the Swiss don’t do anything small when it comes to mountains. It’s go big or go home, which coincidentally is my man’s life motto. How I wish it was, Go read a book and don’t leave home, but alas it is not. The five of us stood at the top of the hill arguing about who would go first, and who would watch, and why is our thirteen year old whipping out her iPhone when near death is at hand? So, we stood having this discussion when the seven-year old made an executive decision and yells “I’m going!” and I caught the words “Watch me, Mom!” as they drifted by on the wind.

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Two runs later, I am done. We send the two youngest up the lift alone one more time, and I stand at the bottom of the slope wearing white ski boots and a worried expression. I keep asking my husband if they’ll be alright, and he assures me they will and he promptly leaves to retrieve our car. I stand at the bottom, and out of the vast whiteness I hear shrieking. Full on screaming, and I can’t make out if it’s the kind of screaming that sends chills up your spine or the kind that comes with water slides and roller coasters. My girl appears at the crest of the hill, mouth wide open mid-shout, and she is flying. Flying, with no regard for bystanders or mama’s weak heart or fear. My hand flies to my mouth as she sweeps by me, heading straight for the line of cars parked at the edge of the snow, and I give a little yell as I imagine her careening off into them. She shocks me when she pulls up short, and snow flings upwards at the touch of her skis. She gives another shout and raises her arms above her head in victory. And when the blood rushes back to my extremities, I realize–I have so much to learn about trust and fearlessness and wild abandon.

Where are you practicing fearlessness and wild abandon? Maybe you’re not, but you want to. Where might you start?

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Disclaimer: That last photo? We didn’t ski that slope. Only in an alternate universe or my husband’s dreams would a slope such as this happen to me.