Choosing the Freefall

freefall
Photo by Toma Toshi on Flickr’s creative commons.

Choosing to be brave is choosing the freefall.

It is the moment when you sheepishly return to the party you left 20 minutes ago, the one where you hardly knew anyone, the one where you stayed your usual amount of time and then slipped away. When the door closed behind you, though, you realized you didn’t actually want to go home, that you weren’t tired, that you weren’t quite done, but you kept walking because you had made your choice and that was that, right? But then, halfway home, you turned the car around and changed your story.

It is the moment when you say, “Yes, I do have something to say, can we talk?” to the person who intimidates you, or the person you might disappoint, or the person who would rather not hear what you have to say.

It is the moment when you pull your car to the side of the road and call the friend you just said goodnight to, the friend you’ve never prayed with before, and ask her if you can maybe come over and pray.

I didn’t plan for any of these moments, but they all found me over the space of two weeks. And as the same scenario seemed to unfold again and again with different players and different stages, I felt the deja vu and I saw my agency, pressed against the glass of my mind’s eye, neglected for so long. Would I keep doing things the way I’d always done them? Would I keep avoiding conflict and fearing what people might think and staying in the safe zone? Or would I take the risk to find out what would happen if I kept the curtains open and stayed on the stage longer than I’d ever done before?

In almost every one of those stories, I landed on my feet almost immediately. My face was flushed and my heart was racing, or I felt foolish and awkward, or I was afraid of disappointing people, but soon, very soon, my feet were on sure ground again, and the new landscape was bright and welcoming, and I was happier, and I felt braver.

And then I did not land on my feet. The fall was longer and the wind made my eyes squint and water. I slammed into the ground and I came away bloody. I still felt like a fool and I still felt afraid, and this time I wanted to take it all back, and this time I needed bandages, and this time I was not happier and I did not feel braver.

But I was still brave.

Bravery looks different for everyone. For me, though, it almost always looks like speaking up or turning around when it would be easier not to. It looks like finding my voice and using it. And it sometimes looks like trembling hands and clumsy words and misapplied shame.

Whether you are standing on the edge with shaky knees, or standing in the victory of a safe landing, or barely standing with dripping wounds, take heart. It will get easier, and it will get harder, and it will be worth it, even if you can’t see it now.

Live Coals and Broken Places

a multitude of candles

When a live coal sits atop a piece of wood, powered by breath and prodded by sticks, the wood eventually becomes a coal too. And with enough time, the heat begins to chip away at the wood.

The fire and I, we made a bowl yesterday.

A few hours before, I was sitting in my car, vaguely aware of a headline, picturing a building or a street corner or another place surrounded by police tape and contained. Then I switched on the radio and learned the truth: of a restaurant and a stadium and a concert hall, of AK-47s and explosives, of death and fear that could not be contained.

I’ve never been to Paris, but I could easily picture myself there, out on the town on a Friday night. I have been to concerts and sporting events and restaurants. I have walked the streets of cities glittering with history and beauty.

I turned up the volume to catch every word spoken in French accents. Between Centennial and Arvada, my world expanded with the weight of grief.

And then I got out of my car and met four others standing around a fire, and for two hours, my world shrunk to the size of a smoking piece of wood.

In this slow work of making something, in the conversations that ebbed and flowed, in the smoke that filled my hair and the breath that left my mouth, I found one of the simplest, most natural pleasures of life.

After the coals had done their work, we took tools to the glowing black, scraping and shaping with stones and curved metal, until it was the right depth and width, until it was smooth to the touch.

My feet were cold when we finished, examining our creations by firelight.

“You have some coal dust on your face,” Megan said.

We laughed and I smiled for the camera without running my sleeve across my face.

But when I was alone again, it all came back to me, this most unnatural destruction of life thousands of miles away.

In a car that now smelled like smoke, my grimy face felt like more than a mark of achievement. I thought of Ash Wednesday and lament, of sackcloth and ashes, of mourning and solidarity.

The night could not end here.

I am not a person who jumps at the chance to pray with people. I am not a person who prays much at all, honestly. But tonight was different, so I pulled to the side of the road and made a call and changed my destination.

Over hot drinks, we shared what we knew and settled in on the couch. We had no candles, and the Old English words of Scripture felt unwieldy on our tongues, but it was right, somehow, to speak aloud our hopes and our once-removed grief, to let the words stream from our lips and run circles around us.

But as the night wore on, a new question percolated in me:

Why was tonight so different?

I haven’t felt this strongly for those in Syria or Iraq, South Sudan or Burundi. I haven’t lit candles for the victims of sex trafficking and hate crimes, racism and oppression, starvation and natural disasters.

Maybe because my world looks more like Paris than the broken places in the Middle East, in Africa, in Asia. I can more easily picture a world that is safe, safe, safe, then suddenly, horribly, not safe, than one trapped in an undertow of violence. My walls don’t shake from bombs falling two streets over. I do not wonder if my family and I will survive another day. I am not faced with the choice of whether or not to risk death by fleeing from death. I always know where my next meal will come from.

We are praying for Paris, and rightly so.

But may our hearts be split open for those living in constant violence, as well as for those to whom it comes like a scream in the stillness. May we light candles and fall to our knees and be moved to action wherever life is being destroyed.

Sometimes the work of justice and shalom and love is a consuming fire, but more often, I think, it is slow work. It is one page, one cup, one word, one coal at a time.

But when a live coal sits atop a piece of wood, powered by breath and prodded by sticks, the wood eventually becomes a coal too. And with enough time, the heat begins to chip away at the wood.

The fire and I, we are making something.

In which I tell you about my depression

Here I am in the darkness, and I can’t muster the strength to wave.

Of course, that’s not really true. If it really were coal black inside me at this very moment, I wouldn’t be able to type these words, never mind lift my hand in some half-hearted greeting.

But it comes, this darkness, and I am afraid of my feelings.

So very thin, so very fragile, is the distance between “okay” and “broken.”

In college, “depression” flitted at the edges of my mind and in my Internet searches, but I rejected the notion. It was something else. It was insecurity, it was stress, it was my spiritual state.

This time, there is no doubt, no explaining away, no alternate narratives.

It came without warning as I sat at the table with my lasagna and the people I had been so excited to see again. It came, and excitement left me and I couldn’t follow the conversations around me and they were a million miles away and I shut down and curled inward and wanted to cry. Later, I did cry.

It came gradually as I walked hand-in-hand on dark, wet nights and wrote pages and pages in my journal while everyone slept. It came, and so did fear. All my certainty left me and I thought of things being shaken and falling away, and soon even that clarity was gone too.

It came like a brick, like an anvil, like a dementor, as we got in the car and prepared for a long drive on that rainy night. That terrible rainy night.

There were respites between the storms, and even a day or two when I felt like my old self again. But it never truly went away, and eventually my body began to wear down too.

I’m home again, and it looks different here. Duller edges, familiar motions, the quiet breaking and forgetting and existing.

I want healing, and I’ve been pursuing it a little. But mostly I’m still holding back, clinging to my defense-mechanism isolation, becoming almost a mechanism myself.

I know healing is so much more than those little white pills they gave me. That word, healing, seems so gentle and soothing and right, but when you stop the sideways glances and look it straight in the eyes, you realize how hard and messy and uncomfortable it will be.

Here I am in the darkness, and I want out, but I don’t know and I’m afraid.

Do what I write, not what I do

The wind is blowing in great gusts, and all the wood above me creaks, and the screen door slams shut and open and then shut again.

I’ve been thinking about what I should write today, what is crawling through me, back and forth from head to heart, what is ready to come forth.

And I keep thinking of the last blog I wrote, the one about making lists and finding meaning in living the well-ordered life and how that doesn’t bring life.

I have a confession to make: When I wrote that blog, I knew, deep down, that I wasn’t going to take my own advice. “It’s time to change the way I view lists,” I wrote. “It’s time to breathe and give myself grace.”

This is what I should do, I thought as I typed.

But it’s so much easier to write than to do.

The truth is, it takes more than inspiring words to dislodge me from this comfortable, sticky hole of mine. You can throw the words “change,” “breathe,” and “grace” at me, or I can throw them at myself, but that’s just the beginning. It takes strategy, resolve, prayer, accountability.

First, though, you have to want to get out.

And I’m not sure I want it enough.

I like the way I stay in touch with people. I like the way I have the ability to see what needs to happen in planning an event or project, and then to make it happen. I like the many blogs I read. I like my clean surfaces and neat, hierarchical folder structures.

Those are all good things.

But I can’t deny they consume me, robotize me, deaden me.

How can I hold on to the good and expunge the bad?

I don’t know how to change.

I can see myself setting the lists and the task obsessions aside for days, weeks, or even months. I can see myself breathing in the cold English air and letting it go and loving every unplanned moment.

But I’m afraid I will always come back to them, always revert to this and other default settings because they are familiar and comfortable.

Then I remember another time, a worse time. A time when I would look at my life and the way I was living it and see nothing I liked.

I didn’t know how to change then either, and like now I was afraid it would never happen.

But I did change. Years and years of stagnation and slipping deeper, and then, for the first time, I knew I was holding change in my hands and I stared and wondered, breathless, if it would last.

I finally got used to it, and I don’t think of it nearly as often as I did then, but it’s lasted.

I remember how change came even from that darkness, and how I’m in a lighter place now. If change could happen then, it can happen now.

It’s so much easier to write than to do, but writing is a step.

Day 25: Public Speaking and Other “Performances”

speaking at my high school graduation
Speaking at my high school graduation. Back when the fear still dominated.

I’ve had so much trembling fear as I’ve stood in front of people.

I was 14 years old when I started going to a “real” school after a lifetime of homeschool. That first year, I was in a Bible class where we each had to memorize and then recite a Bible verse every week. We also had to come up with an application for our chosen verse, though that part didn’t have to be memorized.

I would always say my verse and application fast. One day, someone decided to race me, and so the competition was on, and oh what fun memories I have of stopwatches and rapt attention and a friendly rivalry.

The reason I started saying them fast in the first place, though, wasn’t because I was trying to set a record. It wasn’t even just because I was nervous. It was because I didn’t want people to listen too closely to my application. What if my application was dumb? So I would read it as quickly as possible so people hopefully wouldn’t be able to fully process what I was saying and, thus, wouldn’t be able to judge me.

I didn’t believe my words had worth.

I’ve done the same thing with creative writing assignments in school. Especially when I know I’ll have to read them out loud. Panic would lock up my creative process and I would struggle to bring a word, a sentence, an idea past my freaked-out filter and onto the page. They’ll think this is terrible, I couldn’t help but think, and there would be no enjoyment in the writing.

So much of this fear of mine can be traced back to viewing my words as performances instead of as conversations. I wrote about this on Wednesday, but today I’m making it more personal.

In performances, you can’t mess up. In performances, everyone is watching you and no one’s talking with you and there’s no us, only a very separated you and them. In performances, it’s all or nothing.

I was insecure, and I believed the lie that I wasn’t good enough and my words weren’t good enough.

In school, even preparing for a speech days in advance was enough to fill me with fear. During and since my life-changing trip overseas with YWAM, though, I’ve felt a strange desire to do the very thing that had so terrified me. I spoke at youth groups and church meetings a few times in Asia, and even though I was always nervous right before going to the front, I was able to prepare without fear. There’s something exhilarating about stepping way out of your comfort zone, but it’s more than that. I think speaking and I have some kind of future together.

Anyway, since then, I’ve taught Sunday school regularly, co-preached a sermon in a Mexican church (complete with a translator!), given a toast at a wedding, and of course been on the radio. Sometimes I was still nervous, but I was almost always the one eagerly volunteering to speak, and I never regretted it.

What changed?

My identity changed, in ways I can’t fully put into words. I believe that I am someone worth liking, worth loving, worth listening to. My words aren’t in competition with anyone else’s words (though I do need reminding of this quite often). I can speak or write and not know everything and even make mistakes and it doesn’t make me a failure.

Some people will never enjoy speaking in front of big groups. It’s just not who they are. But I’m beginning to think that I’m not one of those people (two years ago, I never would’ve believed I would be saying this!). I’m beginning to see that speaking and teaching don’t have to be performances; they can be conversations. And I like conversations.

Wedding toast for a friend
Making a toast at a friend’s wedding last month. When the fear no longer dominated.

This is day 25 of 31 Days in the Word.