Awake and Asleep: Joy and Discovery

car emerging from tunnel
Photo by Martin Fisch, flickr’s creative commons

You arrange to meet for coffee, to come over and watch a movie, to play games. You are invited to the party and you have a few threads for the person next to you, a few yarns for the whole group, a few revelations to give and receive. You go to the dinner party and you pinch the dumplings closed before shoveling them into your mouth, laughing with three friends across the table, three good friends from across the world.

You page through your journal and realize that these memories are underrepresented, that more painful ones take top billing, that you’ve written about the same hard things over and over again. It was something you needed to do, you admit, but your life this January, this February, holds more than that.

Don’t forget today, you tell yourself. It’s 3 o’clock in the morning, but you are high on life and you don’t care. Somehow, you don’t think you’ll regret lying on your back, holding your brand-new memories lightly, because they are light. There is nothing rough mixed in, no desperation to clutch every word as if it were the last of its kind.

And it’s not just today.

You eat ice cream on what was then the coldest night of the year, wearing pajamas you borrowed from your friend. You prop up your head with your hand, flattening the pillow under your arm, and talk until the snowplows scrape down Genesee Street.

You are leaving campus when you see a friend of yours sitting at a table. You stop and say hello, and before you know it you are in a coffee shop sipping a chai latte, lingering until closing time, and not just to avoid the wind. You didn’t realize until now how much the two of you have in common.

You stop by the office for a moment and stay almost two hours, until you absolutely have to leave. You pick up the threads of a conversation that started months ago, your favorite sort of conversation, comparing notes and reminiscing about the children’s stories that no one else here knows, the questions that have answers and those that do not.

You drive on two-lane roads to what must surely be the center of the state, two hours there and two hours back, but even though it’s a cold, rainy night, you are in no rush to be home again. You can’t remember the last time you talked this freely for this long without knowing in your bones that it couldn’t last, that it was too good to be true. “I could talk to you about anything,” she says. You believe her, and you agree.

It’s 4 o’clock now. You plug in your headphones and play the old Mozart piece “Rondo Alla Turca” on your new digital piano before finally drifting off to sleep.

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Here Comes Spring?

I had known for a while that I preferred my England journal with the swirls and the pretty birds to the smaller red one, all neat and prim with the typed KJV Bible verses on each page and “Christian art gifts” stamped on the back. For the longest time, though, I thought it was mostly an aesthetic thing: The first journal does look so much better.

But it’s more than that.

I have five journals on my shelf, and each of the five tells a story that has nothing to do with its outward appearance.

Lizzie's five journalsThe first one, after all, is arguably the most beautiful of the three, with its velvety paneling and pink flowers and soft cursive. But its insides are the darkest, full of loneliness and false lights and never finding a way out. It’s my college journal. I wrote in it between 2006 and 2011, and it personifies everything I wish I could change about those years, that winter.

And then spring came in 2012. The second and third journals tell this story, of the awakening of hope. A dear friend gave me the first of the two as a going-away/Christmas present shortly before I left home for my Discipleship Training School (DTS) with YWAM. She lovingly wrote Bible verses on every other page, verses that felt warmer and closer than the staid printed ones on journal #5. (But more on that later.)

This is where it started, I think, as I look at them both … but especially at the second one, the one I picked up in Asia. It was the cheapest journal I could find, and it shows. But I think part of its bedraggled appearance has to do with the fact that I took it everywhere in all kinds of weather. In these journals, descriptions of memorable days and what the lectures were about and oh-isn’t-this-great lists gradually gave way to dialoguing with God in the deepest spiritual intimacy I had ever known. Even when I felt like I had to fight for it, I wrestled honestly through what I knew and what I felt and what I wasn’t sure about. I grew accustomed to going to God first and often — not just with the highest highs and lowest lows — and working through things with him. Even now, knowing how many questions I asked, I know there were plenty of answers too, plenty of epiphanies about him and myself and life.

Spring matured into a summer (journal #4) where the conversations continued as I returned to familiarity — but not to hopelessness! My favorite memories of those first months at home were of my prayer walks. I would talk with God about whatever was on my mind, and I reveled in the ways those walks increased the knowing, lightened my soul, and united my mind and heart in the most joyous of ways.

And then, somewhere along the way, I lost my way.

I miss spring and summer.

For most of this year, I’ve been floundering in autumn. In that fancy, soulless red journal that thinks it knows best. But that’s unkind. I can’t blame the journal for the season. As a matter of fact, I scarcely know this journal. My rate of journaling has noticeably decreased this year. I don’t want to say that how much or how little I write in these precious-or-distant books is a direct reflection of how I’m doing spiritually, but … that does seem to be the pattern.

In making the connection between my life and the seasons, I’m not saying that another winter is inevitable. Or am I? After all, people do go through seasons that, though not as evenly spaced out as the seasons of the year, involve ups and downs, ends and beginnings, and flat middles between all the extremes. Maybe another winter is inevitable, but it won’t be what last winter was. Or maybe what I’ve been calling “autumn” has actually been quite a mild winter, comparatively speaking, and spring is peeking out from behind ice-encrusted leaves and cumulonimbus clouds.

Icy leaf

It certainly feels like spring.

To be writing again feels like spring. To be stepping back into grace feels like spring. To be writing this blog post feels like spring.

I don’t know how I feel about God right now, or where we’re at, or what it will take to get back to a place of intimacy and trust. But I want that. I’m remembering what it was like before, even though it seems so long ago now, and I miss it.

But I can’t go back. This may be a new spring, but it isn’t and can’t be last year’s spring.

Bring me to a new place, and soften me for that bringing.

Sun shining in winter

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Dear Alli

my sister and I
Alli (left) and I celebrating her last birthday

Dear Alli,

After living in the same house for most of our lives, I know a lot about you.

I know you have a good memory and that you love to laugh. I know that story and character are important to you. I know you are a loyal and sensitive person. I know you are artsy and crafty and all kinds of out-of-the-box creative. And I know that you hide behind a mask so much less than you used to.

But there’s still a lot I’m learning, and I think there’s a lot you’re learning too, about who you are.

I want to spend more time with you. Not tell you what to do, not tsk, tsk at your decisions, not judge or compare or criticize. I don’t always succeed. Sometimes, I get all Older Sister Knows Best and that strains things. I’m broken in so many ways, and sometimes my brokenness has spilled over and knocked you down. I’m so sorry for all the ways I’ve hurt you over the years, and for the ways I still frustrate. I know we will never be carbon copies of each other, with the exact same interests and temperaments and goals. We are different. We are similar. We are sisters.

As you celebrate your 23rd birthday on Friday and then, two days later, move your bedroom 30 miles west of here and start anew at college, these are the words of encouragement I want to leave with you:

  • You’re not set in stone. Don’t look at your age or your experiences and feel worried that you haven’t arrived or that all the pieces that should be in place aren’t. There is no should be. We all have different personalities, dreams, journeys. And life is always in flux. As long as you live, you will be moving and shifting and growing. Sometimes that’s a relief, and sometimes you’ll wonder, Am I there yet?! But the truth is, you’ll never be there, where it completely levels out for the rest of your life and it’s all flat and sloping downward and easy. Not in this life. As someone wise once said, “Don’t despise the journey.”
  • The world isn’t as scary as it looks. I know that protective bubble you keep with you is meant to keep out the bad, but it also keeps out some of the good. You don’t have to force yourself out into the world just for the sake of doing so, or to keep up appearances. I understand; I’m an introvert too. There are more of us out there than it seems. Be yourself. Take life one day at a time. But when there’s something you want to do, or a person you think could become a good friend, or a new something that intrigues, but is just outside of your comfort zone, don’t drown it out or run from it. Consider the idea longer than you normally would. Pray about it. Those are the first action steps you can take, and they count.
  • Don’t view yourself as a failure. Remember when I said that you’re only stuck when you lose hope that you can get out? I know it sounds like one of those pithy statements that’s easier said than done — and maybe it is — but it reminds me of the power of hope, even in dark days. Let hope win, even when it’s speaking to you  in a still, small Voice. Listen to that Voice, and not the one that’s pulling you down. Remember that you’re not alone, even when the loud, wrong voice says you are. The wrong voice can’t win when you listen to the right Voice of hope and truth, because that Voice is based on what is solid and true and God.

There’s more I could say, but I think I’ll let Emily Freeman say it for me. She’s one of my favorite bloggers, and a couple weeks ago she wrote a sending prayer for college freshmen. I know you’re not a freshman, but you’re off to a new place with a new major and new people. Her words are gentle, and I think they’ll encourage you. (They encouraged me, and I’m not even in school.)

Happy birthday, Kid! Here’s to more years getting to know God, ourselves, and each other better. We’re pretty close now, but I know we’re on the path to growing even closer. I love you.



my sister and I on the lake

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The License Plate Game

license plate mapThe License Plate Game (if that be its official title) is a legend of road trips, right up there with the Alphabet Game. At least it’s a legend on my road trips, as I try to catch definitive glimpses at the cars whizzing by in the opposite direction — or, if I’m lucky, at the ones  creeping past me in the left lane, slow enough for me to get a good, long look at their markings without endangering anyone’s life.

Years ago, I adapted the Alphabet Game for the dentist’s chair. Now, I’ve turned the License Plate Game into a month-long adventure. How many states, I wondered, would I see in 31 days while simply living my life in the town I grew up in?

Forty states and counting.

Granted, I did go on a weekend trip to Washington, and once I drove slowly around the Bethel Church parking lot, but still. I’m amazed at how many out-of-staters I see on a regular basis. Every day I see between five and ten different states represented on the backs of cars and trucks, and not just border states (well, obviously not just border states, as California only has three of those), but some from rather far-flung locations.

Here’s what I’ve learned as I’ve kept my eyes open: Adventure is all around me.

My one year of being back at home is stretching into two. The trees and mountains look the same, the streets and buildings look mostly the same. When you don’t expect much, you won’t see or seek out much. Over the last year, I’ve gotten to know people who are new to my town and excited to be here, and it’s made a world of difference. There’s so much I didn’t know about this place and still don’t know. No, I will never be able to view my town through the fresh eyes of a newcomer, but I don’t have to view it as the place where dreams and adventures go to die. Because it’s not that place.

No place holds that power, unless you give that power to it.

I want my life — wherever I am — to be like a License Plate Game. I want to be straining and slowing to see if there might be a hidden opportunity at that event, a potential friend in that person, unwrapped joy in that stepping out and starting something. Maybe there won’t be. Maybe it will just be another California and I’ll purse my lips and turn back to the road. But I will keep going, and I will keep looking, because there are more cars. There’s always more. And anyway, there is a time and place for Californias, and Oregons, and Washingtons, and I can learn a lot from them.

But one day I’ll just be driving along, ever-watchful and ever-present and ever-hopeful, and New York will appear and my heart will beat faster and I’ll realize that this, this is what life is about. Life doesn’t just happen out there on the road on set adventures. Life happens here. It’s full of routines and it’s full of familiarity, but it’s also full of surprises and newness and unexpected blessings. It’s full of people and its full of God, and that’s enough.

Wherever you’re doing life can be a place of adventure, if you let it.

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Confessions of an Insecure Reader

I’m insecure about my art.

I’m insecure about my opinions of others’ art.

I have to know exactly what I think and why. I must be able to intelligently and articulately defend my beliefs and opinions. That is the measure of me — if not my worth, then my mind.

I’d like to think that I have a sensible head on my shoulders, good tastes, and sound judgment of good vs. bad writing (as one example). I want to be smart, a critical thinker.

Joining the popular social network site for readers, Goodreads, reminded me of this. As I “compared my bookshelves” with those of my friends, I felt pangs of inferiority when I saw some of the discrepancies in our rankings of the same books. Here are examples of some of the thoughts that ran through my mind: Do I really think that book deserved 5 stars? So-and-so gave it a 3, and, knowing her, she probably had good reasons for doing so. I just click indiscriminately based on half-remembered impressions and loyalties, hardly a proper analysis at all! I can’t even tell you why I gave it 5 stars. What does this say about my tastes? etc., etc.

photo by azrasta on creative commons (flickr)

To a lesser extent, I’m similarly self-critical about my opinions of TV shows, movies, and music (don’t get me started on politics or theology!). But books … I should know books. I’m an avid lover of words, I’ve always loved writing, I’ve taken classes. I should know a great book when I see it, and a good book, and a so-so book. And if I end up liking a book that’s widely viewed as only so-so, well, that’s okay, as long as I have good, intelligent reasons for doing so.

This, this, this, it’s all insecurities. The first step is recognizing them, they say. Well, I’ve seen them for a good, long time, analyzed them to death time and time again, called them by name. Many and varied are they that plague and and unnaturally shape my thoughts and interactions. They hold me back, poisoning and entrapping, hiding for a time and then resurfacing and throwing me back into a familiar confusion and a delving again into the whys.

Whittle down this particular insecurity to its root, and I believe it’s this: I’m afraid that I’m not smart.

Please let me be smart. 

That’s when I realize it must be time to return to the fountain of grace.

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12 Things I Learned in June

Each month since February, one of the bloggers I follow, Emily Freeman, has posted lists of things she learned in that specific month. They’re full of the serious and the silly, the informative and the introspective, the this and the that. This month, she invited us readers to participate with her and, on June 28, post our own lists of the things we learned this month.

Here’s mine:

1. It’s easy to reclassify iTunes media as an audiobook, not music. Who knew the Options tab really was important? (You right-click the file or files in question, click “Get Info,” go to the Options tab, and enter the drop-down menu next to “Media Kind”). My slowly growing collection of audiobooks isn’t stuck with my music after all!

2. What I call a freeway, all my Midwestern and East Coast friends (not to mention most of America) call a highway. It was Joshua Katz’s Maps That Show How Americans Speak Totally Different English From Each Other that made me start to realize this linguistic difference, but it took a conversation with a few college friends to really drive the point home. The question is, how did I know them for seven years without knowing this?! (because of course “freeway” is my most-used word of all time).

what I call a freeway

3. I learned the hard way what a bedbug looks like and what to do when you encounter them on vacation. No, I am not posting a picture.

4. Corn on the cob with a thin layer of mayonnaise and a sprinkling of cheese is delicious! Seriously! I enjoyed most of the food I had on my Mexico missions trip, but the corn on the cob stands out. Probably because we look good together in this picture.

corn on the cob in Mexico
my mayo-and-cheese corn on the cob

5. Mexican nights can be colder than Alaskan nights in June. Never underestimate how much it can cool down in the desert at night, nor what a heatwave is capable of doing in the land of the midnight sun.

6. Mice can fit in very, very tight spaces. Our poor garage.

7. I would rather risk my (future) kids falling asleep in church because I let them sit during worship than risk them growing up thinking that all I care about, and all anyone else in church cares about, is outward expressions of religiosity. I know that I could discuss this a lot more and that the line between freedom and legalism — not to mention parenting itself — isn’t as cut-and-dried as blanket statements like this make it seem, but it’s a start, and it is something I realized this month, so there you go.

8. I’m not a picky eater anymore (at least, I’m nowhere near being the afraid-of-what-new-food-they-might-give-me-at-camp child or the I-will-always-request-plain-foods-when-I-go-to-restaurants teenager and young adult I once was). Huzzah!

9. There is a wit and cleverness about me, a delighting in the ridiculous and the foils and the opposites around me. And yet I am much more heart than head, much more grace than justice, much more soft, malleable shapes than rigid lines and corners. I don’t expect everyone to be like this, but this is who I am, and as much as I need people who get my sense of humor and can exchange witty dialogue with me, I need, even more, people who will see me and love me with so much grace and understanding and acceptance.

10. My dream is to be a writer and a voice. I’ve known the writer part for a long time, but and a voice came to me for the first time when I was in Mexico. It’s very simple and definitely connected with writing, but it also encapsulates the other areas of communication that I’m becoming increasingly interested in (teaching, speaking, etc.).

11. “Te doy mi corazon, eres mi Rey” means “I yield my heart to you, you are my King” in Spanish. And I think it sounds prettier.

12. I learned how to make concrete! Two 80-pound bags of cement, three wheelbarrow loads of sand, two of gravel, lots and lots of water, and voila!

What did you learn this month?

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a life update (if ever there was one)

Railroad tracks in Alaska
in Alaska

When everything you think about seems too big and too overwhelming and too stressful — even the tried & true happy subjects — you know it’s time for sleep.

That was me 24 hours ago, and sleep I did. I awoke to more rain, but less disorientation.

The rain is unusual this time of year. I’m not a huge fan of rain (nor a huge opponent either), but knowing that this may very well be the last precipitation I see for three or four months gives me fonder feelings for those spontaneous droplets. And I welcome any respite from the over-the-top heat native to my brown, pastoral home.

I am still recovering from my back-to-back weeks of adventure in Mexico and Alaska. I suppose that’s only natural since I just got back two days ago.

One week of desert heat and desert cold, followed by one week of balmy midnight sun and green and mountains. One week of beans and rice, tortillas and soupy meat; one week of heavy-on-the-fish American fare. One week of making concrete and playing with kids whom I barely understood; one week of seeing breathtaking views and reuniting with old friends.

In August, I plan to start blogging regularly, making good on my desire to find a small group, and replanting my feet in work and church and life routines here. In August. But until then I still have mini-trips and a special visit and summer weddings smilingly withholding my routines from me. And I don’t mind one bit. I smile right back — smile even more broadly than they are — and speak words of warmest, eagerest welcome.

But this week, this is my week in between all of the glorious moments and soon-to-be’s of July. This is my week to rest, to breathe, to pray.

If you need me, that’s where I’ll be. And if I’m not there, if you discover that I’m doing too much, kindly advise me to ease back on all the mile-a-minute planning and preparing. It will get done.

Now is the time to rest.

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When Love Cries

My baby birds died yesterday.

They weren’t actually my birds, but it felt like they were.

Last month, a pair of blue jays built their nest right up against my house on top of two floodlights. Another pair of jays had done the same thing five years earlier, but we hadn’t known it until we’d heard the chirp-chirp right outside our kitchen window.

2008 baby bird
A baby bird from the first nesting in 2008 (not one of the ones that died).

This time, we realized what was going on much sooner. I was overjoyed to see the parent birds fly by the window carrying twigs and grass. When I didn’t see them at work for a few days, I was afraid they had changed their minds. When they set to work again, I cheered.

I love spring. The greens, the freshness, the new life unfolding and awakening all around me.

I loved adopting these wild birds and getting a front row seat to their little lives for this time. I had such joy watching them. I named them Lipton and Twining (after the brands of tea), I pondered names for their future children, I pressed my face against the glass and peered at the nest with increasingly greater anticipation, straining to see new movement, new life.

birds' nest
The blue jays building their nest last month.

On Sunday, I saw the first sign of life: a little beak protruding upward, barely visible from where I stood outside on my green plastic chair. I didn’t know how many babies there were, or if all of them had hatched yet, but I had most of the names prepared (they were to be named after types of tea).

On Monday afternoon, I arrived home from work and glanced up as I usually do when I’m coming or going.

The nest wasn’t there.

Confusion. My heart and my eyes dropped. Shock. There was the nest, lying on the ground, mostly intact … and there were two mangled baby jays. Disbelief. Anguish.

I don’t consider myself to be an overly emotional person, but this day was different. This day I was sobbing loudly; sobbing with raw, erratic emotion; sobbing for these fragile little ones who had fallen and broken their necks only days after hatching.

I found out later that two other baby birds had fallen from the nest earlier that day.

Four tiny blue jays died that day. I wrote their names on a plain box and buried them behind our house.

I named them Green, Black, Earl, and Oolong.

Before this happened, I was looking forward to writing a blog about these birds. A blog about life. Now, it’s a blog about death.

Or maybe it’s about more than that.

Maybe it’s about the fragility of life, or the importance of having a soft heart that loves deeply even when that means weeping freely. Maybe it’s about the God who holds us in our fragility and cries with us.

I wept for my birds because I knew them and saw them and named them. And yet, their deaths and my sorrow are only a miniscule example of the sadness and suffering in this world.

I don’t cry for those I don’t know, not unless someone tells me their story in a compelling, poignant way. Seeing my birds die, or saying a hard goodbye, or hearing about a friend’s pain breaks my heart, but the suffering and injustice among unfamiliars doesn’t affect me as deeply.

But it should, shouldn’t it?

Life is precious, beautiful, sacred. All life.

I want to weep for the lives I know personally and for the lives I do not know. I want my heart to remain soft, delicate, and yet full of hope. For we “do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope.” We can’t fix everything and cure everyone, but we can breathe hope into one life at a time — one moment, one conversation, one helping hand, one word at a time.

I don’t know why the nest fell, and I don’t know why there is so much pain and sorrow in this world. But I know that God cares about it all, and that he doesn’t generalize suffering. He sees each individual life and hears each individual cry.

Matthew 10:29-31: “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.”

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What Do I Want?

English roseI want to wander along the side of the highway between my home and the city, a route I’ve driven thousands of times, with my camera in hand. Slowly, leisurely, I want to capture the splendor of our short-lived spring, to stand and breathe and gaze rather than glance from my car window as one image dissolves into the next.

I want to really listen to my new music, to read the lyrics, to be steeped in all its beauty. I don’t want it to just be background noise as I hurtle along, rushing from doing the things I don’t really want to do to the things others expect me to do.

I want to read and write and cook and spend time with people and God with freedom, not pressure. Pressure to perform, pressure to turn everything into tasks to be completed, pressure to be everyone’s buoy – including my own.

I want to do what I’m passionate about and to live each day to the fullest. Because each day matters. But it’s easy to lose the joy in the rush or to lose myself in the wrong kind of rest … to go too fast or to stop altogether. I’ve realized that I don’t give myself time to mentally and emotionally and spiritually breathe between all the doings. When that happens, it’s easy to lose sight of why the important things really are important.

It’s not all about the doing.

There’s a fine line between being a people-pleaser and doing out of obligation, and stepping out of one’s comfort zone and doing out of love. Sometimes it’s hard to tell which side of the line I’m walking on.

What do I want? I want to chase my passions rather than be dragged along by them. I want to breathe in Life in the quiet so I can breathe out Life in the noise.

What do you want?

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Confessions of a Blogger

I want this blog to be perfect.

I want the words to be strong, poignant, inspiring. I want the various writings to complement each other, to fit into the same genre, to speak the same language. I want the furnishings to be aesthetically pleasing, color-coordinated, well organized.

Sometimes I look back at my archives, at blogs describing internships and camp experiences for a narrow audience of friends and family, and I wonder if I should start over. Start a new blog that is more streamlined, cohesive, attractive.

Maybe this would bring more readers, I think, the Attention-Seeker vying with the Perfectionist in me.

That’s not a good reason.

If I tried to make this blog perfect, if my focus was on having the best-manicured plot of online real estate, it would turn into something artificial and unrelatable. I would write less, and even the writings that did manage to get past my critical internal editor would be crippled by the pressure to fit into a certain mold.

It’s true that the reason why I blog has changed over the years. The place where I would update friends and family on an internship of mine four years ago has become the place where I write what is on my heart, what I am learning, what I am living.

This blog has days-in-the-life and devotionals, recountings and reflections, lists and lamentations. And you know what? That’s okay. This is my life, these are my “bends in the road.” Some people will be able to relate to my journey, while others will not.

It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t always fit within the same well-defined theme, but isn’t that how all journeys – and lives – are?

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