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.

Saying Goodbye to the Familiar to Make Way for the New

My husband sat in the driver’s seat and popped his head out of the window, saying, “Say goodbye, this might be the last time you see your car!” I touched the side of the sliding door and said, “Goodbye, faithful friend.” I tried to summon tears, but really, that’s a bit dramatic, even for me, and he drove away. He was right, he came home from the dealership without the mini-van, without the car stuffed full of a decade of goldfish crumbs and half-eaten lollipops. He came home without the car that carried my three walking hearts for the last ten years, the one that drove us endless miles across America–captured every argument, every sweaty post-game crowd of kids, every morning goodbye in the drop-off line.

My son recently told me when he thinks of his childhood, it’s colored with memories of Splash Mountain, Cracker Barrel breakfasts, and the smell of despair (his own) from too many hours spent shopping at the mall. When I think of my kids’ childhoods, I think of the silver mini-van. It sat at the heart of everything. I was a mini-van mom, a role I rejected and complained about initially, but one I grew into over time. I grew with each deep conversation, each carpool kid, and each trip to a new, unexplored location.

There is nothing like the ministry of a mini-van to our kids and to our community. It is a microcosm of life on wheels.

We have entered a new season, with two teens and a tween. One kid is months away from driving. The five of us are rarely together in one place, but I still spend most of my time on the road, shuttling each one to their own activities. The mini-van served us well, but we have put that season behind us, before I feel ready. Sometimes, you don’t realize you’re in a new season before you’re knee-deep in the muck and mud of it. We have entered a new season of parenting, with our oldest only one year away from flying from our nest.

It is strange to think I’m no longer the mom wrangling three littles, or shuttling kids to elementary school. I’m no longer the mom who cuts out paper hearts or buys teacher’s gifts or takes photographs at the Daddy/Daughter dance. I’m the mom who cheers from the sidelines of their lives, while they run and run and run towards their future.

This is the goal, isn’t it? To work oneself out of a job. To move from season to season and let ourselves and our children expand into them, and grow with them, rather than fight the change.

The mini-van is an impermanent thing which gave us permanent memories. The lacrosse sticks, school books, and dirty clothes strewn around my house will not litter the floor forever. But the memories are the scent that rises, the one that brings us back to times of love and frustration and growth, this sweet smell is a fragrance we never forget. It smells like sacrifice and permanence and chocolate cake.

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I found this post tucked away in last summer’s archives, and I thought it could use a re-visit. Once again, big changes for our family lie on the other side of August, and my role will change with our new season of family life. We will say goodbye to good things to make way for those things that are better.

Are you facing big changes in your life this fall? How will you grow with them, rather than put up a fight?

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On Motherhood and Living in the Present

As I shuffled through seventeen years of memories captured on film, her doe eyes followed me from photograph to photograph. So did her smile–gap-toothed, then crooked, braced, and at last, perfectly straight. I discovered her all over again–at two years old, at ten, at sixteen. A highlight reel of both the extraordinary and the everyday scrolled across my computer screen. Her life unfolded over four continents of landmarks, oceans, and mountains in far flung places.

I watched, mesmerized, as she opened her arms to the waiting world.

As seventeen years scrolled by me in a blink, I re-discovered my daughter, but to my surprise, I also re-discovered myself. Years of photographs found me either front and center with an arm slung around her shoulder or hovering close in the background–a flash of tanned leg, a turned back, extended arms carrying flaming candles on chocolate cake. Other times, I stood behind the camera, narrating the story of my daughter’s life as it blossomed in slow motion right before my eyes.

Bloom. Click. Blink.

I’ve carried a secret fear for years–the fear that the complexity of my inner life eclipses the day to day living of my outer life. I  spend too much time in my head, in a book, in emotions and words stored up for no one but me. I often wonder if I become so wrapped up in my own inner stories, that I forget to live the one unfolding in front of me.

I worry that I missed it all, that the doe eyes and ready smile and open arms are a product of my imagination, rather than permanent tattoos inked onto the skin of my day to day.

The photos reminded me of the truth; I co-wrote the narrative of her life. I didn’t miss a thing. Every first, every last, every familiar gesture, every friend, every party, every rolled eye, and crooked grin. I flutter in and around all of them, sometimes front and center, sometimes just outside the frame, sometimes behind the lens as a witness to her story unfolding.

I couldn’t erase the smile from my face as I read her story in photographs. This second reading of her life confirmed my fears are unfounded. I was present, and I remember each of those moments with clarity.

I remember now too, how those photos only tell part of the story. They don’t tell of the private moments when I sang her to sleep or read her books at bedtime. They show nothing of the prayers whispered, the hopes met or deferred, the dreams dreamed, the tears cried, or the sleepless nights that make a surprise return when teenagers begin dating and driving.

The photos tell a story, but the heartbeat behind all that living? It’s pure poetry.

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The One Question I Ask Again and Again

“Good writers are monotonous, like good composers. They keep trying to perfect the one problem they were born to understand.” ~Alberto Moravia

For forty years, I’ve asked the same question, “What does it mean to belong?” I’ve “lived the questions”, as Rilke so lovingly suggests, and I still feel as if I’m hovering around the answer, searching for a place to land. Belonging is more than fitting into the shape of a place, but rather feeling at home in one’s body, mind, and spirit. It is belonging to a family. To a cause. To a community. To an ideal. To an art form. It is belonging in one’s skin, and being fully at home with one’s self, and this is a journey I continue to travel. Searching, circling, seeking a way in.

One of the great joys in life is discovering by what means we find a way in to the problem we’re meant to understand. Words are my way in, the means by which I seek understanding. I tie them like small scraps of string along the path to help me journey towards the problem, but also to find my way into the answers. So often, understanding comes not only from moving forward, but from making our way back. Back into our past relationships, seasons of life, and life experiences. Back to the familiar questions knocking at the door of our heart.

Moravia’s words have proven true not only in my life as a writer, but simply as a human being. One doesn’t need to be a writer or composer to identify and seek answers to the common themes in their life. I wish someone had told me to look for the threads tying my life together–look for the themes and questions that continued to knit their way into my soul. It took me nearly seven years of writing to discover what problem I’ve been trying to understand and a lifetime before that.

I’ve asked so many questions and spilled so much ink while asking myself what it means to belong, and yet I feel so far from perfecting an answer. I feel comforted by the fact that I’m not the only one who continues circling around the same idea–all of the great artists do. And the not-so-great artists. And the rest of us ordinary people too.

Every day I step out into the questions in faith, I grow closer. I tie my scraps of string, moving forward and back and forward once again. It’s a journey with paths that diverge and cross and lead to places of loss and also wonder. What a miracle it is to step into the mystery with my words as a guide, making peace with the fact that I may never find the answers, but perhaps the  answers will find me.

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What is the one problem/theme/idea you find yourself returning to again and again? What helps you understand?

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.