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.

One Word 2017: Artist

“I believe that each work of art, whether it is a work of great genius or something very small, comes to the artist and says, ” Here I am. Enflesh me. Give birth to me.” And the artist either says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord,” and willingly becomes the bearer of the work, or refuses…” ~Madeleine L’Engle in Walking on Water

In ancient Judaism, Jewish men bound small boxes, called tefillim or phylacteries, to their forehead and their arm. These boxes contained words of the Torah printed on scraps of paper, and they served as a reminder that the words of God should be at the forefront of our minds and the inspiration for the work of our hands.

I chose the word Restore as my touchstone word for 2016, a word I believed was birthed in the heart of God for me, and I carried it with me throughout the year. I wore it strapped to my heart like a tefillin wraps around the forehead or the arm of a devout believer. I wore Restore as a symbol, a beacon to guide me in prayer, in thought, and in action. For most of the year, I wore it with desperation, while so much of what I hoped for was stripped away. A job offer, a book proposal, my confidence as a parent, a friendship, peace of mind, my voice, a sense of hope–all disappeared under the weight of this word.

I thought I held a promise, and instead I clung to a word that brought doubt and defeat. It was a difficult year of waiting and watering seeds that never seemed to grow. And yet, as the year draws to a close, I see restoration taking root. A few opportunities slipped into my open hands. Prayers for my children bore fruit. I wrote words and released them into the world. I discovered points of light guiding me in the darkness.

During this dark, imperceptible work of restoration, a deeper longing began to grow, and it birthed a word to carry with me into 2017. “Artist” is my touchstone for the New Year, the word that will serve as a beacon and symbol–a phylactery bound to my hands and feet and chest. This is a year of becoming, of creating courageous art because creation requires more than imagination, it requires a lionhearted act of courage. It is about consuming art not as a diversion, but as inspiration to create more of my own.

“And the idea of being named for an artist. A person could be reborn on the strength of that.” ~Barbara Kingsolver in Flight Pattern

I have always coveted the name Artist, but I’ve felt embarrassed and ashamed of this desire. Ashamed that I couldn’t claim this name for myself, but rather waited for someone else to give me permission and to name me.

Shame forces us into the shadows, and this year I am stepping out of the shadows and into starlight and sun. I want to live into the fullness of myself as an artist, rather than in the shadows of others’ art. This feels very vulnerable to admit out loud on the internet, but it is a first step towards a reclamation of my name. A first step towards creating courageous art.

I don’t know what this becoming will look like, but I stand ready to embrace imagination and discipline my way towards acts of creation, to step out of the shadows, to drink of the light, and let it pour out like drops feeding the lake of good and true and incarnational art.

“All of writing (and art) is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake.” ~Jean Rhys in the Paris Review

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Your word for the year may not relate to art in any way, but I want to encourage you as you enter the new year, to begin looking for ways to bring light into the shadows. Where do you find yourself hiding? What would a courageous next step look like for you in 2017? Once you’ve identified it, write it down and bind it to your heart in some way. Give yourself the name you’ve always longed to hear, feed the lake of your passion, embody courage.

A Summer Q&A: Everything You’ve Never Asked Me (Part 2)

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Yesterday, in Part 1, I shared my current reads, instagram inspiration, and thoughts on living abroad. Today, I’m touching on past failures and future projects. Thanks for joining me.

What’s your latest project?

Besides writing dodgy poetry? I’m currently joining my friends Elise Daly Parker, Kimberly Amici, and Noelle Rhodes for the new Slices of Life Podcast. We launched a few weeks ago, and I join them every other week. I have no idea what I’m doing, which you will discover fairly quickly as a listener.

Also, my voice is upsetting on multiple levels.

As is the case with many writers, I’m more articulate when there’s a blank page and a delete button handy, but the other hosts are great. I covet Elise’s radio-ready voice and Kimberly’s ability to summon a proper answer immediately. Every Tuesday, we offer candid conversations to enhance life, grow faith, and build community. Give us a try when you need a companion for your walk, long drive, or while washing the dishes. Find us and subscribe on iTunes.

What is this “bizarre turn of events” of which you speak? (See yesterday’s intro)

Thanks for asking. Over the last year, I’ve had a string of rejections related to my writing. Specifically, I was turned down for a number of writing gigs, ideas I pitched were more often than not rejected, and an editor removed my essay from a recent book release a few months before it was published. A few months ago, I was given the green light on a major project, which promptly took a tailspin when the commissioner of said project changed their mind in a most dramatic fashion. It left me deflated, wounded, and to be honest, kind of a hot mess.

I’m a firm believer in walking through the doors that open, and it seems that publishing has closed most doors to me right now. I’ve prayed for months about my next steps, and a few weeks ago, I was unexpectedly asked to interview for a teaching position at a local university. I interviewed, was hired, and filled out all the paperwork in a single afternoon. I would have settled for a cracked door to cast a single slant of light across the shadows of the past year, but this one swung wide open.

Within two weeks, on the very afternoon I began to prepare the syllabus, I received a phone call rescinding the job offer based on an obscure university policy that only recently came to light. This is not the kind of light I had hoped for, and I stood in a state of shock as the door closed and locked in front of me.

Why am I telling you this? Because it is real and true and crummy. It is the journey this year has taken, the year I named The Year of Restoration. Oh, the irony. Sometimes I want to write words of encouragement, and sometimes I think it’s best to spill the ugly guts of the story. This is the story of beat-up dreams and broken promises, but it’s also a reminder that while this part of my life is messy, there are other areas that are thriving.

I don’t have a beautiful bow to tie on this tale. I don’t have redemption or a job or a book contract. I don’t have the restoration I long for. I have a hoarse voice and a bruised hand from the asking, seeking, and knocking. I have dreams that refuse to die no matter how many stones the world stacks on top of them. I can choose to see these stones as a grave or an altar.

I have one thousand and one reasons why I continue to show up and write here. And I’m so grateful you show up here too.

One Small Way to Steward Your Life Well

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“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” ~Prov 29:18

Some time ago, Christie and I met for lunch in a little village in the middle of Pennsylvania. After lunch, we strolled through an eclectic street fair selling afghans with huge dog faces printed on them, hanging next to cheap t-shirts and dreamcatchers with trailing feathers. It wasn’t really our scene, so we made our way to a garden center filled with the scent of soil and growing things.

Gardening tools, bags of bulbs, and books on planting lined the shelves inside. As we browsed and ran our hands over the garden gnomes, Christie told me that she planned and dreamed of her garden well before she knew it would exist. She gathered books, studying the care of flowering trees and the best time to plant bulbs. Long before her garden existed, the vision for it took root in her heart. She gathered garden stories like the trees gather the wind in their leaves.

Today, she tends to the garden of her dreams with a back bent toward the earth and dirt beneath her fingernails. She continues to imagine what it could be, but there is growth now, it is alive today because she dreamed and planned and read it into being.

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I’ve been on a entrepreneurial bender lately. I’ve listened to multiple podcasts on starting one’s own business, and I read a few books like #GirlBoss and Laura Vanderkam’s I Know How She Does It. At first, I thought this sudden interest in being a self-employed artist was an attempt by my subconscious to avoid doing housework or writing (this remains a very real possibility).

I don’t have any entrepreneurial leanings, nor do I have any skill set that might lead one to believe I could create and sell something. I make a wicked lop-sided coconut cake, but that’s the extent of my creative abilities. But, lately I find myself continually drawn to these concepts about using one’s gifts, setting goals, sticking to a path, and using one’s time well.

Listen, I do dirty dishes and laundry for a living. My sudden interest in running a business doesn’t make much sense in the context of my current life situation, until I began to see a recurring theme in all of the information I consumed. It sounded like a bell ringing in the distance, and it rang with the word Stewardship over and over.

The Parable of the Talents has popped into my inbox and my earbuds lately, and it’s so familiar, I tend to brush it off. However, the heartbeat of the story is stewardship–stewarding our gifts well so that we receive a return on our investment. All of this brushing up on time management and using creativity to actually create something of value doesn’t seem to have much of a practical application for me at this stage of my life. But, when I view it in terms of stewardship, I see how easily the smallest choices of how I spend my time, what I think about, and how I steward my writing and my relationships have an impact on my hope for the future.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of now. I don’t have a garden now, so why study the seasons? I don’t have a business now, so why learn how to manage my time better? I don’t have my dream now, so why stir up my belief in it? I want to live in the present, but I also want to plan well for my future.

Over the years, I’ve learned to lean into the direction of my interests and whims. When I find myself drawn to a particular subject, I lean in, I read, I study it. In doing so, I often discover useful nuggets of wisdom, and I plant them like seeds for the future. This is how a vision takes root, and grows into something alive and life-giving and fruitful.

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What are you drawn to today? What are you reading and listening to, and what themes do you see emerging? How does it fit in with your future vision? How are you stewarding your gifts and your time?

For the One Who Isn’t Wonder Woman and Never Will Be

FullSizeRenderIn my twenties, I attended a company Holiday party hosted by my husband’s then-employer. It was held in a dimly lit ballroom with a dance floor and wandering balloon artists creating phallic symbols to be worn as hats. I was nervous about meeting his colleagues for the first time because of my small-talk allergy, so I tried to make myself as pretty as possible, to offer at least the appearance of being put together.

Had I known about the pen*s-shaped balloons, I wouldn’t have worried so much. I wore an ankle length, velvet dress in a deep shade of burgundy, and around my waist I wrapped a rhinestone belt that circled once, then dropped into a long line of faux jewels hanging down like a string of glittering diamonds. The first co-worker I shook hands with looked at the trailing rhinestones, and asked if I was wearing a Lasso of Truth that evening.

Obviously I wasn’t, otherwise when I asked him if he was insulting me, his reply wouldn’t have been a hasty “No” and a fast exit. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what a Lasso of Truth was at the time. I didn’t read comic books as a girl, and so my knowledge of Wonder Woman and her Lasso of Truth was rudimentary at best. I knew she was a superhero, but I didn’t understand why.

Before I left for my MFA residency in England last month, I quit my day job. You aren’t surprised, and neither was anyone related to me. The twenty-five hours a week I spent working as an admin assistant for five (yes, FIVE) campus pastors, became unsustainable with my husband’s new work schedule and my desire for sleep, sanity, and seeing my kids (and grad school, and running a busy household, and writing projects…). I have entered retirement, effective immediately.

I also discovered administrative work makes me feel as if I’m wearing restrictive undergarments at all times. Is this what Spanx feel like? If so, no thank you. I found myself expending an enormous amount of mental energy trying to hold everything in–the schedules, the expense reports, the emails, the to-dos, along with my own internal crazy. I’m far too relaxed about the details of life (and especially the administrative tasks related to life) to sustain that kind of work long-term. Being “organized” is a totally different animal than being administratively gifted. Lesson learned, and as usual, I learned it the hard way. Thanks, office job, for teaching me I have no future in, well, anything but the creative.

For six months, I pretended I was Wonder Woman, managing tasks at the office and managing life at home. But, one can only ask their family to eat so many take-out dinners and wear the same pair of dirty jeans on repeat so many times, before the illusion begins to wear off. In my case, it wore off pretty quickly. I wish I had it all together. I wish I could work outside the home and take care of a family and finish grad school and write in my spare time, but I can’t do it all and do it well. I just can’t. It’s very hard to admit this to one’s self, let alone admit it to the internet. But here I am, bleeding a little from my wounded imperfections onto this page, because I suspect some of you feel the same way too.

You don’t feel like Wonder Woman. You feel as if there isn’t enough of you to satisfy all the needs and expectations and desires placed on you daily. Sure, you could squeeze more into your schedule to assume something akin to “productivity”, but you don’t want to. You want breathing room. You want space. Like you, I am tired of this insane frenetic pace we’re all expected to keep, in order to do more. Trying to do more, makes me feel like I am less. Less capable, less competent, and less connected to my inner self.

A friend once said to me, on becoming an adult, “You reach a point in life where you don’t need anyone or anything to tell you who you are. You already know.” This is a lesson I’m learning in reverse. I’ve become more and more undone as an adult. Life experience has unraveled me, but I’m beginning to see myself more clearly with each success and failure. The puzzle pieces are snapping into place, and they tell the story of who I am and who I will become. I will not be Wonder Woman, and even though many of my friends manage to pull this off, this is not me.

Working outside the home wasn’t the problem, but sacrificing the hours I need to write and study, to pursue something I find incredibly life-giving, became too much of a tension for me. Through trial and error, I’m discovering who I am. I have zero employable skills apart from writing. I may not be Wonder Woman, and I may not be able to force others into the truth, but I can tell the truth about myself. Rhinestone lasso or not.