Prickly People

It’s easy to be a prickly person–but giving love freely is much more rewarding.

I just got back from Colorado, where I saw a lot of cacti that look like this:

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My friend Jill, who I stayed with, tells me if you brush up against them, you get little cactus spines sticking all over your leg or your hand or your whatever in a most uncomfortable manner. Through great skill or dumb luck I managed to avoid this experience and escaped spine-free from my desert jaunts.

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Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my naturally prickly personality. There’ve been times in my life when I honestly wasn’t very easy to get to know. Maybe it was my introverted personality. Maybe it was the way I was raised. Or maybe it was a subtly sinful attitude I was hardly aware of: I was waiting to see who I really thought was worthy of my time and attention.

In reality, it was probably some mix of these things. I really was shy, and it took me a while to warm up to new people and experiences.

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Gradually, I’ve come to see what a gift it is when others accept and welcome me without reservation, treating me like a friend from the beginning, without waiting for me to prove myself. It’s sparked a desire in me to extend the same gift to others: the gift of friendship without requirements, without expectation of worthiness first.

My friend Kristen comes to mind in particular. She treats everyone she meets with great kindness. I remember asking her one time, “Doesn’t it exhaust you? Don’t you feel like your store of love is going to run out?” I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it seemed like a new concept to her, that one could run out of love, like one runs out of money, or time.

I, on the other hand, was always storing my emotional exertion. I got drained easily, so I kept it close for just a few special people.

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When I asked my friend Jill if I could come visit her family in Colorado, she didn’t hesitate.

In the more recent past, God has convicted my heart about this. The idea started to grow in me: instead of holding people at arm’s length, I was going to like everyone.

Not just act like I liked everyone.

Like everyone.

I know people always say you don’t have to like everyone; you just have to love them. But isn’t part of loving intentionally trying to find and encourage the good in others? Doesn’t it mean trying my darndest to see the beautiful and the image of God in every person I meet? To dig it out with whatever wits I happen to have about me that day? (Which some days is not very much, I admit!)

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It’s been an interesting path, and a challenging one. It’s also really rewarding. Sometimes you find the best friends in the most unexpected places. I’ve realized I don’t want to miss out on relationships of great value because I wait too long to show love. I don’t want to miss opportunities to see people blossom into their best selves because they don’t feel safe in my company. It’s simple to be a prickly person–but giving love freely is much more rewarding.

With some people it’s easy.

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With some people it’s not.

Maybe it’s their naturally introverted personality. Maybe it’s the way they were raised. Or maybe it’s that subtly sinful attitude: they’re waiting to see if I’m worthy of their time and attention.

Maybe they think I’m too young or too old or too single or too female.

Whatever it is, I’m trying to remember the people who showed me great love when I was a prickly, hard-to-know person. (People like my friends Jill, and Kristen, and many others!) I’m pretty sure they were following the Master in this area.

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We love because he first loved us.

I John 4:19

 

 

Babbling Like an Idiot

Maybe beauty is not enough. Maybe it’s a lot of babbling like an idiot.

I found these beauties on my run this evening.

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They reminded me of a poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay, one I love for its turn of phrase, and one whose deep yearning I understand even as I push back against its hopelessness.

Spring

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
April
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
Edna St. Vincent Millay

Perhaps the poet herself did not really mean it; perhaps she saw life as “an empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs” only in the shadow of some personal sorrow.

I hope so.

Maybe she couldn’t see it, but her poetry was a kind of ostentatiously excessive strewing of beauty not that much unlike the flowers of April. I like to think that of the gifts God has given me. They are not particularly useful, in the way the crafting of houses is useful, or the growing of food, or the engineering of technology, or the education of children are useful. I craft words. I create images. You cannot eat them. You cannot live in them.

Sometimes it’s easy to think these things are less important. Maybe this beauty is not enough. Maybe it’s a lot of babbling like an idiot.

But in my sanest, clearest moments, I know this is where I differ with St. Vincent Millay. I know for sure that beauty, where we find it, isn’t meaningless.

It’s a promise that one day all things will be renewed.

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.”

Revelation 21:5, ESV

Signs of Spring

Can you smell it in the air—spring coming? Can you feel it coming?

20170322_181222Can you smell it in the air—spring coming? Can you feel it on its way? It’s in the extra bit of light, bit upon bit, we get now each evening; it’s in the small green buds swelling on the branches. It’s in the forsythia blossoms I discovered this afternoon while tramping along the woodsy path near my apartment.

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I love spring’s promise, its hope of life renewed, of joy rekindled. I’ve been yearning for it, all this long, dark, cold Illinois winter. Some days it seemed so far away I thought it would never come.

Six months ago I took a leap to leave a place I loved dearly to step through a door God opened in an unexpected way. To walk a path that felt uncertain and unclear. Lots of days, lots of moments, it still feels that way.

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I don’t know what’s at the end of this path. I don’t understand all the reasons God chose to bring me here. Sometimes it’s tough and I don’t like it.  Sometimes I feel dried up inside with the loneliness of being unknown, chattering in the wind like a dead leaf or an empty seed pod.

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Lots of days, I kind of want run away. To stop, to turn around and go back the way I came, or to plop down in the middle of the trail and just go on strike.

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But also, there are little hints of joy along the way—like gifts, or surprises, God leaves to remind me he planned this.

An unexpected smile. Someone who takes time to care. A hug when I need it.

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And there are signs of new growth. In my heart. In friendships. In opportunities.

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Sometimes, I need a reminder that life is an adventure with God, and adventures take courage. Sometimes, I need to open my eyes and look for signs that spring is coming.

“This is no thaw,” said the dwarf, suddenly stopping. “This is Spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed, I tell you! This is Aslan’s doing.”

C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

 

Ditch Your Muse, and Other Truths to Build Writing Stamina

When I began applying for MFA programs in Creative Writing, I knew I needed a serious kick in the pants.

Originally posted at Breathe Writer’s Conference:
http://breatheconference.com/home/featured-articles/ditch-your-muse-and-other-truths-to-build-writing-stamina.html

When I began applying for MFA programs in Creative Writing, I knew I needed a serious kick in the pants. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but my output came in pitiful spurts and dribbles. I was that kid who daydreams of winning an Olympic medal, but stumbles gasping and wheezing through the first mile.

Stamina. I needed to build some writing stamina.

Now, a semester into this MFA writing deal, I feel stronger as a writer, more prepared for the marathon of the writing life. Here are three writing truths that are moving from head knowledge to muscle-memory for me.

1.Your muse is a fickle creature who shows up for work like once in a blue moon. So ditch her.

Too many times I’ve waited for inspiration to strike before beginning a project. Too often I’ve left a project unfinished when inspiration ran dry. But that doesn’t work when professors and classmates are expecting new material. Over the course of the semester, I’ve written and revised three chapters of a novel, two short stories, and a picture book. Much of the time, I was already tired from a day of prepping lesson plans, grading essays, or editing documents. I didn’t have the luxury of writing only when I felt mentally in the groove—I had deadlines to meet!

You may not have teachers to give you deadlines, but give yourself some or ask others to. (Hint: Find a venue for publication and see what their submission deadlines are.) Because good writing can and must happen with or without your muse.

2. It’s okay to write a big messy pile of words.

I haven’t yet reached the point where words flow confidently from my fingertips to the page in lyrical sentences. My first drafts are like middle schoolers—awkward and badly dressed. This means revising will involve painful chopping of large chunks of prose (Hey, I spent a lot of time writing that!) plus a lot of reshaping and polishing of what’s left. The final product will look very unlike the sentences I first typed.

Give yourself permission to write a lot of ugly sentences. Because good writing only happens after you write a truckload of stuff that would make you blush to admit it was yours.

3. Good feedback is worth its weight in gold.

One of my favorite parts of being a student is the writing community. As I’ve interacted with my classmates and professors, opening myself to their critique, I’ve broadened my ideas of what is possible in my writing. They point out confusion where I thought I was clear, tell me where more tension is needed, and suggest plot twists. It’s painful sometimes to be critiqued, especially when trying something new, but it stimulates my mind to find previously unconsidered solutions.

Find people to share with and glean from. An MFA’s not for everyone, but do attend conferences and seek out a writer’s group to join! Because good writing happens within a sharing community.

So ditch your muse, write a sloppy first draft, and go get some feedback! There’s no better way to build stamina in your writing journey.

Growing Into Christ

I’ve been a Christian for a long time, but I’m still a baby in some ways.

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—” (I Peter. 2:2, ESV)

I’ve been a Christian for a long time, but I’m still a baby in some ways. Like my five-month-old niece Madison, when I feel needy, crying is frequently the first thing that comes naturally. Parents of newborns talk a lot about teaching the baby to self-soothe; this seems to be what David references in the beautifully minimalistic Psalm 131 (ESV):

O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.

I am learning in my needy moments to calm and quiet my soul, remembering that God has never let me down yet. Remembering that that thing I’m so anxious about is perhaps not something God intends for me to fix. Remembering that God is the hero of the story, not me.

Those who share my perfectionist tendencies will understand when I say that my life has been a turbulent pursuit of excellence. Good grades. Artistic achievement. Meticulous attention to detail. And “Being Good.” It’s ironic that even the praise-worthy pursuit of holiness can become a toxic thing in the heart of a perfectionist. At first, I was energized by my goals because I really believed I could achieve them. I just needed to try a little harder.

A few years ago, I crashed when ten years’ worth of life goals crumbled around me. Emotionally and physically exhausted, I cried out to God, “Why did you let this happen? I only ever tried to please you!” And at the bottom of that mental pit, I became very aware that I would never, ever, ever be beautiful enough to please God. As I limped (crawled?) out of that pit (not by way of a rescue rope, as I hoped, but by a long, circuitous, gently-sloping path), something became horribly clear:

I had been dressing up a dead body. I had been feverishly painting make-up on a rotting corpse.

This is a mystery of faith to me, that it took me 30-some years of believing to really see that every day I must get up and dress myself in Jesus. It’s my only hope of being beautiful. It’s absolutely no good for me to start each day with good resolutions: “Today I will be kind to so-and-so. Today I will trust God for the future.” It’s no good for me to make checklists of the progress I am going to make or to memorize chapter after chapter of the Bible. (Though this is certainly an admirable and beneficial thing to do!)

None of it’s any good unless I throw out any idea of my own beauty to become totally mesmerized by His. None of it means a thing unless I come confidently to God wearing Jesus. This is what it means when it says “whoever believes in him will not be put to shame” (I Pet. 2:6, ESV). Because what is more shameful than having the all the decorative glitter stripped away and finding out you are dead inside?

Speaking of long, circuitous routes, all this brings me to the verse I shared at the beginning, the reason for this post in the first place.

“Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—” (I Peter. 2:2, ESV)

I can’t stop thinking about that phrase, “grow up into salvation.” This is perhaps the first time I’ve read this verse it in my ESV-reading years. (Other versions have slightly different renderings.) But I keep picturing it like this: Me, a tiny newborn baby, or maybe I’m a toddler perhaps, dressing up in Jesus. And He’s so gloriously beautiful and amazing that I don’t fit Him. He falls in waves of extra fabric around me. The salvation He offers is totally mine; I’m wearing it already. But there’s abundant room for me to grow into it.

And I am so the little kid who wants to fit her parent’s shoes.

Red Plush Teddy Bears, and Other Things I Don’t Want on Valentine’s Day

For Valentine’s Day, please don’t buy me this.

For Valentine’s Day, please don’t buy me this. 150213 Red Bear

I just wanted to give you a heads-up, in case you were thinking about it.

Although, there is something about that “Kiss ME,” with ME in all caps like EVERYONE wants kisses from the recipient and the blushing bear has to plead for his spot in the queue. That would be interesting.

And unlikely.

So, ego-stoking as that might be, and as grateful as I would be for your thoughtfulness and all … Gigantic red plush teddy bear? Nah, I’m good.

It’s the season of love, and despite the rampant cheesiness, for singles and many times couples alike, this day has a way of highlighting the deep-seated desires we alternately try to hide, ignore, placate, numb, and gratify in a variety of ways. We long to love and be loved. We ache to be chosen, to be held. We wait for the pain of loneliness to be soothed, and the sting of rejection to be healed.

I want these things. On Valentine’s Day, on every other day of the year.

But this year, I’m thinking about three things I don’t want on Valentine’s Day.

1. On Valentine’s Day, I don’t want to overlook Perfect Love. I believe the desire for love, for human companionship, for physical affection is natural, beautiful, and good. As I’ve walked the road of singleness, I’ve fought the urge to bury my hopes, believing that this longing is a good part of who God made me. Lately, like a little, tottering child, I am taking my longing to the One who put it there. I am amazed at how clumsy I am at receiving Perfect Love from the author of Perfect Love. It is as simple and as hard as sitting quietly and receiving. It is as simple and as hard as hearing and believing when He says:

“The Lord your God … will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love.” (Zeph. 3:17, ESV)

“Let the beloved of the Lord rest secure in him, for he shields him all day long, and the one the Lord loves rests between his shoulders.” (Deut. 33:12, NIV)

2. On Valentine’s Day, I don’t want to shut my eyes to the people around me who are hurting. It’s easy to fixate on my pain, to listen to the voices that tell me my burden is heavier than anyone else’s. The truth is that I have been sheltered from all kinds of painful experiences in my life and have been loved better than I deserve. The truth is that many people (singles and couples; men and women; young and old) hurt in many ways. The blessing and privilege of being God’s child is that I become a recipient of His love and am entrusted with sharing it with others. So I’m learning to be quicker to “rejoice with those who rejoice” and “weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:14, ESV).

3. On Valentine’s Day, I don’t want to think I am loving when I am in fact self-serving. I Corinthians 13 reminds us what real love looks like: patient, kind, not envious or boastful, not arrogant or rude.

“It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.
Love bears all things, believes all things,
hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.” (I Cor. 13:4-8)

It is so easy to put on a mask of caring for my own selfish reasons. To get people to like me. To feel good about myself. To get what I want. On Valentine’s Day, I want love to be genuine (Rom. 12:9).

And every day all year long.150213 Roses.JPG

Oh, and for the record: I accept these year round.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

For the literary-minded, here is a quote and a love poem to enjoy.

“God’s gifts put man’s best dreams to shame.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Love (III)

By George Herbert

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.

Open Water

In 2015, I am seriously considering competing in a triathlon.

Originally posted at the Breathe Writer’s Conference site: http://breatheconference.com/home/featured-articles/open-water.html

150213 Open Water

In 2015, I am seriously considering competing in a triathlon.

Even a few years ago, I would never have thought of doing this, because, quite honestly, I am terrified of drowning. (Pretty much not an exaggeration.)

Since I can currently hardly swim the length of a pool, some of you may feel concerned that my life might actually be in danger. I assure you: I won’t attempt a tri without training. And even with training, well— Swimming in open water? With no pool edge nearby? Pretty sure there will be a healthy (or not-so-healthy) dose of adrenaline going on.

So why do it? Because we only know the joy of overcoming when we face the things we fear.

In 2015, I’m doing another thing that scares me: starting an MFA in Creative Writing. I think it’s going to be awesome. And hard. I may have to cut some things in my life that I enjoy. Like sleep.

It’s worth it to me because I think it will help me become a stronger writer.

The beautiful—and terrifying—thing about 2015 is that it is still unknown. It is a page yet unwritten, one that may bring joy like we’ve never known—or one that may undo us. We launch out into the open water of 2015 with no edges to grab on to. Facing unknowns, knowing our own insufficiency. Maybe the waters of 2015 will take us under.

When I feel uncertain about the challenges ahead, I think of someone who had a different perspective about the future:

Strength and dignity are her clothing,
And she smiles at the future (Proverbs 31:25, NASB).

Here’s a woman (and men, you can learn from her too!) who looks with courage at the unknown and smiles in anticipation of success. She’s dignified, strong, self-assured.

I want to face 2015 that way.

A few verses earlier, we get a clue about how she can feel so confident.

She girds herself with strength
And makes her arms strong (Proverbs 31:17, NASB).

She’s doesn’t just plunge in, willy-nilly. She took time to look ahead and to prepare. She gets strong for whatever is coming.

There’s another piece to the puzzle. This person is confident, but not self-reliant. She trusts in God.

… a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised (Proverbs 31:30, NASB).

At we start into 2015, take some time to reset your internal perspective. What are your writing goals for the new year? How can you prepare yourself? What unknowns do you need to commit to God?

For me, I want 2015 will be a year to remember: a year where I strengthen my arms, trusting God for the outcome. A year where I smile at the future, anticipating the joy of overcoming.

Give her the product of her hands,
And let her works praise her in the gates (Proverbs 31:31, NASB).

May it be a year full of writing successes for each of you!

I’d love to hear from you in the comments. What do you hope to achieve this year (writing or non-writing)? How are you preparing to succeed? Where do you need to trust God for the unknowns?