six impossible things before breakfast (or graduation -another journal entry)

six impossible things before breakfast (or graduation -another journal entry)

It’s been building for about six months now, this feeling like I just need a good, dambreaking cry. I’ve been on the verge now, a little closer a few times, where my eyes well, but everything stays there, right on the edge.

Happened again the other afternoon, as I was wandering through the campus center. Someone serendipitously managed to schedule too many things at once in the music building, so chorale was forced to practice in the campus center. I wandered over with a few others, and took a seat in the loft overlooking the stage area. And I took a couple minutes, watching the students below, imagining/remembering my own treasured time in chorale.

Though I’d originally not even planned on auditioning, music was part of how I got through, back then. I remember one tough day, receiving some gut-punching news (to me, anyway) over lunch in the commons, going back to my room in West Hall for a good cry, and pulling myself up, taking a deep breath, and heading to chorale practice, where I sang out the rest of my sorrows. I left practice that day feeling healed, and stronger.

And so, I listened the other day, with those memories streaming through my mind. One piece they were practicing centered on Galatians 6:9: “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest of we do not give up.”

Lord knows, I’ve seen plenty of weary days along this journey. Many, many days full to the brim of joy, of gratitude, of being constantly aware of just how unreasonably good God is to me. But there have been days of weariness, days I feel like Robert Francis Weatherbee, days I feel invisible and unnoticed and all I so desperately want is for someone to pull me aside and tell me that they see and they know how hard this is sometimes. But it doesn’t happen most days, and so, I go on. I do the next thing.

And now, the harvest looks pretty ripe from where I stand. Twenty-six years after I began, I will walk the stage in the graduation gown that now hangs in my closet –the same stage on which I once sang gowned in a dress two sizes too big, in a hideous shade of baby blue taffeta, hemmed up five inches, taken in nearly as much, and literally taped to my chest to conceal my poor tailoring skills, because Dutch girls don’t come in 5’2″ bodies. I’ve survived heartbreak, disillusionment with a dream, depression, recovered, and lived to write about it. I’ve changed my major, found a husband, and found my calling. I’ve made lifelong friends and mentors whose companionship and encouragement I’ll treasure even beyond this experience. I have had not just one, but several of my pieces published. I’ve had a review in an academic journal, several pieces published online, and another piece due to appear in a print magazine this month. People have read my work and told me not only that they enjoy reading it, but that it’s been used of God to do His work. What more could I ask?

It was an impossible dream two and a half years ago, that December I first considered going back for real. But the itch to finish wouldn’t go away, and I heard that voice again, that voice I assumed was God, telling me that I would have what I need when I needed it. And now, I come to the finish line. A twenty-six year journey, written with more turns and changes and surprises than I could have ever imagined, but, as always, I see more clearly how I love His stories the best. They have the best endings.

Granted, it’s only one impossible walk I’ll do on the morning of May 5, but it’s made of far more than six impossible things, believed in faith that certainly didn’t come from myself and made reality by strength and passion beyond my own.

The trees are greening, my lawn needs mowing, and the next page turn in my planner lands in May already –one more week and a few days to draw all the marrow out of this experience, breathe it in deep and take it with me for the next turn on the road. I think I’m slowly becoming okay with this. Slowly.

Thoughts on the End of La La Land

Thoughts on the End of La La Land

SPOILERS. BIG TIME. (duh). You have been warned…

Since my friend Marta gave pretty much the expert review of the first part of the movie (enough that her enthusiasm convinced me to see it), I thought I’d process my thoughts about the end of the movie. –Unfortunately, I’ve only seen it once, so there might be missing pieces and slight flying leaps of logic. Forgiveness requested in advance.

I’d been forewarned that some don’t care for the end of this movie. Lately, however, …well, that means I’ll like it. Of course, there was that unfortunate ending of The Remains of the Day, where a female friend and I who watched it were ready to find Izikuro whats-his-name and run him out on a rail. Worst. Movie. Ending. Ever. I was enraged. How dare you drag us through two full hours of a beautiful near-miss sentimental build up only to give Captain Responsible the Workaholic Butler Who Obviously Loves Her a second chance with the woman he obviously can’t stop thinking about even after years, and just walk away and let the whole story fall apart like that?!? As though we wouldn’t notice!

…But I digress.

With this movie and its not-your-average-happy-ending, however, I’ve kind of changed. I think the ending of this movie, however anti-usual-happy-ending it was, was beautiful. Let me explain why I think that.

I’m a survivor of my twenties. I know about that electric rush of emotion and energy and power that gets you through those years. It’s heady stuff, being in your twenties. I love being surrounded by students who are living their way through those days –all the peaks and valleys propelled like you’ve been shot out of a cannon in the vague direction of your dreams.

…But I’ve also survived my twenties. I know that explosions have two properties: they’re nearly always somewhat destructive, and once they’re done, …they’re done. I watched that happen to myself and my own friends. There comes a day when the sun comes up and you suddenly realize maybe you can’t save the world, but you can be where you are and make the best difference you can in your own little world. You realize that dreams are shape-shifters. Dreams are a living idea –they grow and change, and accepting that fact doesn’t mean you’ve sold out or given in. It means you’ve grown into the person you’re meant to be. Some of the saddest people I’ve known are people who took longer than the average bear to figure that out.

By the first fight scene, I knew they weren’t going to make it. I kept wanting to shove Mia back into that kitchen with Sebastian, and not walk out the door. I kept wanting him to run after her. But he didn’t. You can tell a lot about a couple by how they fight, I think. And something about that scene gave me the final clue that they weren’t going to make it happen.

But, they had exactly what they needed for a beautiful friendship. Like all great friendships, they had something in common, and they had a deep and rich knowledge of each other. They knew when to ask “why?” and when to point out a compromise. Mia knew how to balance Sebastian’s dreams when he was on the edge of throwing it all aside for stability –for her, and I think somewhere inside her, she knew that she alone couldn’t make him happy. That, I think, is where I knew that the romance, however amazing and colorful and wonderful, wouldn’t sustain the story (hint: in real life, it rarely does, either).

Love is what sustains the story: and not just romantic love, either. I was struck throughout the movie of the incredible gift it is to have people who know you well and with whom you can mutually cheer each other on towards the things you are passionate about. This was the strength of Mia and Sebastian’s relationship –even beyond romance. It’s all in that scene where Sebastian drives all the way back to her home to get her and bring her to that audition, that scene where she’s so deeply discouraged that hope is a foreign language to her. Sebastian translates for her, not letting her believe the lies she’s told herself. And she finally understands again. There’s no dancing, no singing, no Hollywood romance in that scene, but for me, that’s where I see their love most clearly and purely.

Every girl with a dream needs a few good friends who are advocates for her dreams. Over my life, I’ve been blessed with three that come to mind right away. I’m married to my favorite of the three, but the other two have been there at just the right times with just the right words (even difficult ones, when necessary) to keep that passion inside me alive.

They’ve been a windblock, kindling, a boundary of stones to keep things under control, even gasoline at times. Catalysts to the work God has done in my life, they’ve kept me doing hard things, kept me believing that God put me here to do something only I could do, kept me from walking away from my dreams.

And, so, that “five years later” scene, where Mia walks into her home, greets her children, and kisses a man who’s not Sebastian (there was an audible expression of disappointment in the theater) came as no surprise to me. Because I’ve survived my twenties. I know life is like that sometimes. And sometimes, what seems to be the happy ending winds up being anything but that in the long view.

I, too, held my breath a little during that flashback/dreamscape scene after Sebastian and Mia meet again and he sets his hands to the keys, playing the song that they sang together. But the outcome was exactly as I assumed it would be. We’re carried through their backstory, the angst of dreams that died, the pain left of unfulfilled plans, the questioning –-this was the dream, now was it really what I wanted after all? We can see that question in both Mia and Sebastian’s faces in that scene as Mia walks out and their eyes meet.

I kept waiting, but I knew she would leave. It was the right thing to do. It was the only thing to do. I’m not being callous here –I’m speaking from the perspective of a married woman: sometimes the most profoundly powerful act of love is letting your feet lead you back home when your heart wants to stay somewhere else. Mia’s deciding to leave with her husband, in my eyes, was an act of incredible of courage and strength, and something I’d like more in stories.

I finally got what I was watching for: that smile. The smile that had to have started in her heart when she walked in and saw that sign, watched Sebastian’s dreams realized. That, for me, was what the story was about.

Happy endings come in all kinds of packages. Some just take a little time and pain to unwind.

revising the future

revising the future

As a non-traditional student at the school where I started (but abandoned) my college education twenty-five years ago, I have more than my share of bizarre moments of misplaced memories. It’s like a warped sense of deja vu sometimes.

Take, for instance, a sudden realization that threatened to derail my entire train of thought for a good five minutes: the exact spot in the library where I’m now taking a poetry class is the place I stumbled upon Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Mad Girl’s Love Song” twenty some years ago. Exact same place that changed my perspective on writing as a tool for finding that we’re not alone in the world. Exact place that launched an essay I wound up writing –an essay that, incidentally, returned to me yesterday, rejected by the first place I sent it. Someone once said that having a child was like having your heart walking around outside your body. Maybe it’s a shade melodramatic, but sending that piece out felt a little like the same sort of thing. All I’ve ever grown is scar tissue, not a thicker skin (resilience), so I’m finding the learning curve for this sort of thing a bit rough at times. But I digress. The room.

If I didn’t see God as ultimately Divine Author, I’d have dismissed it as irony. Instead, I see it as God writing one of those little details into my story that, had I not been paying attention, would have been missed.

And one of the things called to my attention in this gathering of full-circle epiphanic moments is that I don’t think I ever really mourned the death of my old dreams. I had moments, like the trip with friends late in my freshman year (after I realized I would never be a teacher) to Northwestern’s chapel, at that point, only a year or two old. It’s a beautiful place. I remember lying on a pew, staring up at the rafters and pillars and high ceilings and wondering where I’d wind up after I was done -architecture was one passing interest. I could use art and science practically. It was stuff-oriented, not people-oriented. I could handle that. That night, I picked up my broken image of the future and started seeing hope. A year later, I left college altogether, and started over. I became a graphic artist, a respectable profession. But I never mourned the losses.

And so, it threw me off for a bit, this deep sense of pain I felt when I asked myself, what if I hadn’t given it all up? What if I’d soldiered on, kept those dreams, become a teacher and finished school when I was scheduled to? It’s the what-ifs that are getting me down lately.  Did I give up too quickly? Does the fact that I’m sitting in a class geared for students entering the workforce and the non-student world, this world I’ve navigated for two decades –with students young enough to be my children– does this all mean I’ve failed?

You’re not supposed to be unmoored, directionless, confused when you’re graduating college at nearly 44 years old. But that’s where I’m finding myself. People ask me if I’m excited to graduate and all I can honestly muster is a shrug and a grimace. Because I know that the risk lies on the other side. I lost a dream once, and I’m so very afraid of losing another one. I used to be driven, hellbent on making my own path, until the path fell apart at my feet. I confused calling for gift –I had intended to present myself as a teacher to God, to do great things with the lives of young people, teaching them to see and recreate the visual beauty around them. I had intended to sacrifice marriage, family, the dreams of the typical American for this. And instead, God sent me Ed 101, a job as a graphic artist, and a husband.

And it was good. But it took me a while to grow into it. And then, God gave me a new vision with this writing thing. A late-life entry into a new dream. Somewhere between a mid-life crisis and the face palm after a thousand clues I never caught. Of course. And now I get it. The gift was not mine to give. It was always God’s. All He ever wanted was for me to follow, to listen. Right now, the gift is a second chance.

This is where the tension between my understanding of the sovereignty of God, his authority, his authorship of my life and the path my own feet take me gets difficult to understand. The place I’ve landed in the tension is the understanding that there’s nothing I can screw up so badly that God can’t make it into something beautiful. And I see that, in the little things, like putting my poetry class in a place I sort of see as holy ground. It’s a reminder -he spares no detail in reminding me that I am His beloved.

I plan differently now as a grown woman than I did as a twenty-year-old young woman. Instead of being my own cartographer, I go out my door every morning, and I look for manna. Manna -gathered daily, never kept over for another day (excepting the day before the Sabbath), never striven for, always provided. And, like the Israelites, I ask every morning as I pull out of my driveway and head south back to class, “What is it today, Lord? What is it?”


Just another January Thursday morning at the local Shrine to Avarice.

Just another January Thursday morning at the local Shrine to Avarice.
I spent part of the morning at the mall. I went to pick up a new phone to replace my glitchy old one, and now Siri and I are on speaking terms again. I figured it was a good opportunity to get some walking in, partly to make the trip worth the drive –there was nothing else I needed from the mall.

The mall on a January weekday morning is a strange place –quiet, almost, except for the music, which I could probably use as a running soundtrack. Gone are the days of instrumental easy-listening Muzak. It’s all contemporary EDM and pop; I suppose to heighten your sense of urgency and make it a higher-class atmosphere, as though being good enough to enter their store is something you should aspire to. Something you don’t quite deserve, but you could, if you had better clothes.

It’s kind of a “Mean Girls” flashback for me, being at the mall, wandering around in an old college sweatshirt, jeans, and my running shoes. I saw through the ruse of “You Need This Thing to Be Your Best Self” at an early age, not because I was mature for my age, but because our family didn’t have that kind of money. If you can’t join ’em, judge ’em. But if I’d have had a couple hundred to drop at the mall on any given Saturday, maybe I’d see things differently. Maybe.

When I was writing a book review this summer, I read a passage comparing a mall to a place of worship –and that couldn’t be more accurate, as I see it. Even I, of the relatively thin pocketbook and commitment to simple living was tempted a couple times by displays of new clothes, shelves stocked with new running shoes, the aroma wafting out of Bath and Body Works (probably mostly nostalgia). I dropped into Hallmark to see if they still carried the same line of journals I used in high school –the ones with the combination lock. Unfortunately, no, just a couple key-lock models that would set you back $17.95 for less than a page a day for a year’s worth of extremely low-security writing space. I walked out, feeling a little sad for the women standing at the counter. Greeting cards are kind of anachronistic, after all, in the age of email and texts with colorful emojis. Our family hasn’t sent out Christmas cards for years. But, still, I had felt compelled to go in, see what was new, see if I’d forgotten anything I needed. And I questioned why I felt a little twinge of guilt leaving the store empty-handed, as though buying a valentine a month early for my husband would somehow preserve letter-writing and the handwritten word single-handedly. So many subtle emotional interactions in one visit to the mall. Attraction, compulsion, guilt, enticement…

A call to worship.

But I ignored it this morning, wandering around the halls more for exercise and people-watching than to obtain stuff. I figured out, as I sat in the food court (what a ridiculous name… but that’s another blog post…), that what I usually am shopping for is something to make me happy. I have enough of what I need already, but I still have this haunting sense that I’m just one thing away from fulfillment.

The phone I went to the mall for in the first place is the closest thing to my old phone I could find, and I was elated to find that someone at Apple decided, as I did, three repairs ago, that the iPhone 5 was a pretty great design, and worth keeping. I’d have slogged along with the old phone, except that Siri had become completely hard of hearing, and for the last week or two, on every third call, either I couldn’t hear who had called me, or they couldn’t hear me. Everything else works on it, it just has issues with the phone part. But since this little lighted box that functions as a portable container for my social life is really, primarily a phone, I figured it was time to give up. I’d have just as well fixed it, but I question now whether my DIY attempts at a new battery and a new screen may have caused my present problem, I figured I may as well throw out the white flag.

I guess that makes me kind of weird, feeling I need to justify replacing something that’s broken. It’s an old habit, and not one I’m going to break any time soon. It’s bad enough I have a computer, after all, seeing as better writers than me get along just fine without.

new every morning

new every morning

Solomon would likely roll his eyes a bit at our national obsession with January and new-year do-overs. I’m sitting here watching the Today show this morning, and I’m both amused and kind of disgusted that we Americans continue to believe that we’re only one book, one product, one class away from the answer to all our challenges.

I just watched a segment advertising a Roomba and a high-tech exercise bike one after the other, and I’m looking across the living room at my old twenty-pound Kirby vacuum cleaner with new appreciation for its built-in weight-training capabilities.

“The end of a matter is better than its beginning,
    and patience is better than pride.” -Ecc. 7:8

Every year, every January 1, our American obsession with self-determination and “being our best self” means we dust off our gym shoes, charge up our heart rate monitors, and start over.

But by February 15, …it’s back to the old habits. The shiny new start we were given at 12:01 on January 1 assumes the old patina of apathy and less-than-perfect attempts at waking up early, going for that run, making it to that yoga class.

What if, however, we threw out the old American tradition of self-determination and believed the scriptural principle of getting a new start every morning?

“Yet this I call to mind
    and therefore I have hope:

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
    therefore I will wait for him.” -Lamentations 3:21-24

This is from Lamentations, of all places, and the verses here come after a long, long list of reasons the author believes that God has turned His face from him. The whole list comes to a turn, however, with the realization that God’s not through with him yet, and that he has another chance.

The Lord’s compassions never fail.

Read on through Lamentations 3, and you’ll see that the writer’s hope is not in his own self-determination to do better. It’s in a knowledge and a belief that God will never fail himself. We have one job: to wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord. And waiting is exactly what we don’t want to do on January 1. Waiting is so essentially anti-American. Give us a to-do list. Tell us how to get rid of our belly fat, how to get more done in a day, how to put down the phone and pay attention to our kids. All of these are good things, but here’s the kicker:

“Who can speak and have it happen
    if the Lord has not decreed it?” -Lamentations 3:37

The author of Lamentations has come to the end of himself. He’s not without hope: he’s without a way to dig himself out. He’s finding his way not by grabbing a shovel and digging, but by laying it all down, finding restoration in lament, and looking up for a way out. I think we would learn much by his example.

“Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that both calamities and good things come?
Why should the living complain
    when punished for their sins?

Let us examine our ways and test them,
    and let us return to the Lord.” -Lamentations 3:38-40

There’s a to-do list that I can put my hope in. Take a few minutes today and journey through Lamentations 3. Let it turn your new year plans and hopes completely upside down, and when the gym shoes start collecting dust again in a couple weeks, remember those new mercies every morning. Remember His compassion, and rely on God’s continual restoration for your hope. And then, blow the dust off and go for that run.

putting to rout all that is not life

putting to rout all that is not life

“To see the world, things dangerous to come to, to see behind walls, draw closer, to find each other and to feel. That is the purpose of life.”
-from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Last December I started a tradition of watching a movie by myself once I got home from the last day of classes, before the kids came home. A scene from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (the newer one) had come to mind in a random moment, so I figured that would be a good selection, since this has been a particularly difficult semester –one in which I’ve asked myself on more than one (or twenty) occasions, “why am I doing this again?” Several classes which don’t seem to have much to do with what I want to do at the end of this educational adventure were getting me a bit draggy at the heels. And in light of the fact that last year was sort of unabated amazingness, well, the contrast was less than helpful.

And, so, I figured a little cinematic existentialism couldn’t hurt.

…But that quote –I really, really want that to be true, but I know it’s not. Because living that way tends to lend itself to losing appreciation for the moments when there are no walls to see behind, no dangerous things, seeing the familiar world. And if I lose that, I know I lose the real purpose of life.

It’s losing the ability to fight to find the beauty in the ordinary, joy in the mundane, that leads to what Thoreau might call “leading a life of quiet desperation.”

The end of Dead Poets’ Society (last December’s semester-end choice) shows the futility of living life in endless pursuit of the mountaintop moments, driven by self-determined goals of what we want our lives to be about.

I remember being pretty disappointed with Walden, when I finally got around to reading it. Thoreau struck me as being sort of self-absorbed, rather anti-social. I’d hoped for a manual on living a richer life, I suppose. I didn’t get that. I got the ruminations of one man who threw out society’s ideals and went off by himself and pretty much gave up on his community. I was left with a feeling of emptiness –a lot like I was at the end of Dead Poets’.

I guess the thing I appreciated about Walter Mitty was not so much the journey of finding courage, but the end: the point where he discovers that everything he needed was right in front of him. The wallet in the trash. The gift he’d ignored. It was all in his back pocket, and he’d gone and thrown it away. He’d made a false dichotomy between safety and adventure, and in the process, sort of missed them both.

Sure, jumping off a helicopter was a thrill, long boarding through Greenland (or was it Iceland? I can’t remember) was pretty incredible.

The journey may change you, but sooner or later, you’ve got to go home.

And that’s where I find myself, months from graduation –about on my journey back home, back to the world of work and writing things maybe nobody will read. Maybe this semester was about fishing through the trash to find that wallet. Learning again to fight for the joy in the mundane. Needing to look harder to find the beauty in the things I live with every day.

“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention” -from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

What’s the purpose of life? To glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Forever includes the days circled in red on the calendar and the days in between. It includes the unforgettable moments and hours of tedium. It’s all part of forever.

The art of it is to realize that joy is worth the fight.

november already (a journal entry)

november already  (a journal entry)

-nov. 4-

I am ready and not ready for this all at once.

I’m all registered for next semester, my last, and I’m waiting for the manifestation of the emotional mess that I know I am but haven’t yet acknowledged. This is it. Last time around. I think I held on to the thought of finishing for so long that it never seemed real in my mind. And now, here I am.

November. Already.

Sara Groves got me through the morning and through writing a paper today. I have to watch what I listen to these days, my mind being prone to wander far too much. At least four times in four different places along my week I’ve swatted away the thought, “I wonder where I’ll be this time next year…”

I’m a mess, and therefore, I’m writing. Because this is how I work: I write my way to the solution, the answer, the slow untangle of things.

I’ve taken on what looks to be both a daunting and amazing set of classes next semester. I soundly ignored the self that wanted to just play it safe and did, for once, what I know I will not regret.

-nov. 16-

Twice this week, I’ve consulted my “next-year self” to make a decision –trying to view things in terms of what I know I will regret not having done tomorrow instead of what I am afraid to do today. On the bulletin board above my desk, I’ve put up a quote from a character in a short-story I wrote (no, seriously, I really did this): “self-consciousness is rarely worth the trouble when you look back.” And, yes, I realize I’m just weird enough to have received counsel from a character I made up in my head…and actually, this isn’t the first time it’s happened, either.

But, today, I think the clouds broke. I’m less dragging in melancholy and more just …grateful again. I drove in to school this morning with James Taylor on the radio, amazed again at this place in life that I’ve come to –this full-circle eucharisteo that comes in unpredictable waves of joy and fills up all my empty places.

I talked to another student in my journalism class this week. When I explained that I’d discovered in the class that I don’t think journalism is my thing, she told me that she’s decided to pursue a journalism minor along with her graphic art degree, and I could see the light of “I know what I’m made to do!” in her eyes. If you’ve never seen that spark in someone, be on the lookout for it –spotting that particular kind of joy is a gift. It’s one of the side benefits of teaching that I was looking forward to, but I still get to experience it anyway as a mom and a student.

“Isn’t it amazing when you finally get to that point where you know what you’re meant to do?”

She smiled, nodded.

And I smiled back, because I know what that joy of finding my calling is like now. Some would say twenty years too late, but I’d say, like the magnet on my mother-in-law’s fridge, that God may be long, but He is never late.