The Lost Character in the Story

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This is a question I started asking myself a couple of years ago. It seems ridiculous to ask, doesn’t it? After all, if it’s my story, I must be the main character, the protagonist, the leading lady. Practically speaking, however, I lived more like a secondary character most of my life.

To say I’m the leading character felt selfish to me. Yes, it’s my story, but as a Christian woman, isn’t life about making my story about others – my children, my husband, the neighbors, my family, people in need? That sounded right to me. My role was to love others above myself, to elevate their story and make it the best possible version it could be.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved serving, loving my family, giving to others, but after a long stint, I started feeling empty, used up, and exhausted. I didn’t think my story mattered at all. I didn’t think I mattered at all. I thought my value to God was found in making the stories of others more important.

But God has a different opinion. When asked by the Pharisees what was the greatest commandment of all, Jesus answered, “To love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.” And I spend a lifetime trying to do this.

Loving our neighbor as ourselves is where a lot of us get it wrong. We love our neighbors, our children, our family, the lost, the church, but we don’t love ourselves. We skip the last part of the command, as yourself . He told us to love others as we love ourselves. That means we can only love those characters in our story when we love ourselves.

And part of loving ourselves is recognizing that we are indeed the main character of our story, and we matter. Our opinions, our likes and dislikes, our dreams, our tastes all matter. God loves us wildly and lavishly. He loves to dream with us, plan with us, give us the desires of our heart. He is intimately present in our stories and He made each of us the main character of our story. As we learn to love ourselves, then we can love the other marvelous characters we get the privilege of knowing.

Being the main character of your story isn’t selfish; it’s loving. Learning to love yourself will profoundly change you, and that love will overflow to others.

31 dAYS

I Write Because….

I wish I could give credit to the one who first penned the line, I write because I must, but after an extensive Google search, I am no closer to the answer. Suffice to say, it is a popular sentiment embraced by many. If I were to complete the line I write because …, I would have a far different answer.

I write because it helps me process life. I wake up every morning with literal blank pages before me bound in a leather cover. After grabbing my cup of coffee with pages in hand and a book I am currently reading, I retreat to my front porch, one of my favorite places, and sit in my rocking chair to think and write about life. I may read a little or just sit and sip from my cup. And then, I write and write and write. Some pages are filled with rants and others with gratitude. Some days I tackle the deep philosophical or cultural issues of the day and others, I jot down a to do list. I complain. I pontificate. I question. I dream. I dread. The pages have coffee stains, blurry letters from tears, rips from being dropped, doodles from daydreams, but every word is my way of processing the story I am living – the twists, the turns, the mystery, the characters, the changing setting.

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For me, these pages aren’t monologues. They are a conversation between me and the One who sees and knows it all. I pour out my heart, sometimes with snot flying and tears dripping and sometimes with laughter flowing or sarcasm oozing. And when I write until I can’t write another word, I wait.

And almost always, God speaks to me. Some days he uses words that seem to bubble up inside of me, and then there are days when He uses birds, neighbors, books, a phone call, and Scripture to give me understanding and offer peace. I can’t explain it completely, but I have discovered, He is always speaking. And over time I’m listening more.

I write because I want to process my life. But maybe on a deeper level, I write because I like having chats with the One who knows my story and enjoys living it with me. That seems like a good enough reason to me.

31 dAYS

The Misplaced Happily Ever After

A baby died yesterday. Not just any baby. He was his mommy and daddy’s little treasure. He was a little brother, a really little one. He was only six months old. I can’t even write he walked this earth six months because he never got the chance to walk. I don’t even think he ever crawled.

Happily ever after is the stuff of fairy tales. Sure fairy tales contain the opening line for my story, but happily ever after is misplaced and sorely misused. The line troubles me because it gives the impression that once it happens, happiness is ensured ever after. You know the it I’m talking about…

  • after I get my braces off
  • once I learn to drive
  • when I get a date for the prom
  • when I go off to college
  • when I get married
  • once we buy the house with the white picket fence
  • when I get pregnant
  • when I finally go into labor and have this baby
  • when the baby sleeps through the night
  • when we get through the diaper phase
  • when they’re out of the car seat
  • when they get potty trained
  • when I lose twenty pounds
  • once I go to the gym
  • when I get that promotion
  • when the kids start their lives
  • once I save enough in our 401K
  • when I have grandkids
  • once I retire

Our life is filled with the once and when’s, but somehow suffering, strife, loss, and tragedy still come. We finally arrive at when and then stuff happens.

Fairy tales only tell part of the story. They share the struggle of a young person who is cruelly kept at home to serve her evil step family instead of partying at the ball, or the girl who ends up living with a witch because her dad made a really bad deal and is locked in her room so long that her hair ends up growing out the window. And the stories go on. Eventually they are rescued by the man of their dreams, and the stories stop there with happily ever after. No one tells you what follows.

“Happily ever after always depends on where you chose to end the story.”

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What follows is LIFE. And that life is certainly filled with happiness – except when it isn’t. There are no money back guarantees for this life we have been given. It’s a little like buying a house as is. It’s wonderful, full of potential, spacious enough for dreams and a family, and a great yard to play in, but behind the walls are leaky pipes, faulty electrical wires, perhaps a even a family of squirrels, or a termite or two thousand. You can’t see the trouble, but over time, it will make itself known. And you face it as it comes.

Yesterday was not a happily ever after for one sweet family. I pray God walks closely with them through their grief and loss and sorrow. One day, they will be reunited as a family and that little guy who left this earth way too early in my estimation will see his mommy, his daddy, his big brother, and I imagine sisters and more brothers he never met before, at least that’s how I want to imagine it. And that day will be their happily ever after. Until then, they will live their story, fill the rooms of their life with moments they never imagined. Occasionally, the pipes will leak and the foundation will settle, but they will live a full life.

31 dAYS

The Bridge Over Troubled Waters

Today is my mom’s birthday. I had a memory of her today that grew into a gift. This is so like my mom, giving gifts on her special day.

I remember two little girls and their mommy eating out for dinner, a lovely distraction from some of the difficulty we were going through. We were three girls making memories, dreaming dreams, asking questions in the midst of pain and loss.

We scooted into a booth and immediately turned to the individual jukebox mounted on the wall. Mommy gave Kathy four quarters to put into the slot. We were each allowed to pick out four songs and she would select the remaining two. I only remember one of the songs I picked, I Would Give Everything I Own by Bread. It’s so funny I would remember that detail.

After we settled in and gave our orders to the waitress, I remember asking my mom, “What are you going to be when you grow up?” She gave me a sweet smile. She wasn’t offended in the least and if she thought the question was ridiculous, she never let on. She answered me as though it was a perfectly legitimate question for a daughter to ask her mom.

“Well, Susie, when I grow up, I am going to be a hippie. “

I thought for a couple of seconds and asked, “Mommy, what’s a hippie?”

She replied, “A hippie is someone who wears tattered bell bottom jeans, doesn’t take baths, and never cuts her hair but always wears flowers in it.”

I remember tears falling down my cheeks, and my mom asking me what was wrong. I looked into her beautiful blue eyes and pleaded, “Please don’t be a hippie, Mommy.”

She made her way around the table and gave me a two arm hug, assuring me that she was only playing. There was no need, she said, for me to worry. No matter what she did when she “grew up”, she would always be my mommy. Her words seemed to assuage my fears of having a dirty, tattered mom.

Our meal came. We ate our fries first and nibbled on our pork sandwiches. We talked about school and friends. Suddenly, in the middle of our conversation, Mommy blurts out, “Girls, when I die, I want this song played at my funeral.” Her comment seemed so random, but that’s the way my mom is. When she has a thought, it bursts out like hiccup.

She told us to listen. One of her songs was playing on the jukebox. It was Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon and Garfunkle. All three of us sat perfectly still for three minutes or so, until the song was finished. At that moment for me, the words and music were overshadowed by the prospect of my mom one day being gone. I felt really sad. I think Kathy asked her what she liked about the song. I love that about Kathy. She was in the moment with Mommy. She actually heard the words and was interested in what Mommy liked about it. I don’t recall what her answer was, but curious Kat seemed to be satisfied.

The meal continued and my memory ends there.

Once the memory faded, I decided to look up the lyrics of the song – one I am familiar with but had never really examined.

I was blown away. I understand now, decades later, why my mom loved this song. It is her anthem, her heart song. As a young mom, this was her hope, her dream of what she wanted to be when she grew up. She wanted to be a bridge over troubled waters for her three girls (she gave us one more sister when we were teenagers and I’m so grateful for that). She wanted to leave a legacy of I Lay Me Down. And, she did. She didn’t do it perfectly but she did it fiercely. She sacrificed so much so that we could grow into the people we are today.

When I read the final words of the song, I felt like she has been singing this over me my entire life.

Sail on silver girl
Sail on by
Your time has come to shine
All your dreams are on their way
See how they shine
Oh, if you need a friend
I’m sailing right behind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will ease your mind
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down

Thank you, Mommy, for being that bridge. Thank you for wanting me to shine. Thank you for teaching me to dream and to sail through this life, even over troubled waters. Knowing that you are right behind gives me strength.

Happy birthday and before I forget, thank you for the gift. I love you.

The Artist’s Way: Nurturing Dreams

I was intrigued by the wooden box sitting on the table off to the side. It didn’t have a place of prominence in the room, but it was there, high enough to capture my attention. There’s something about a box that piques my interest.- a gift box, a  wooden jewelry box, a brightly painted toy box, round hat boxes, even boxes in my garage.  I want to know what’s inside. I want to unearth the hidden treasures buried in a drawer, a closet, the garage.

So as the leader spoke, my gaze periodically turned to this wooden box. I listen as she spoke about the journey were all on and the need for our class to be a safe place for our dreams to be shared and nurtured. But, if I were to be honest here, I was a bit distracted by that darn box.

Finally, she opened it and carefully pulled out a bird’s nest complete with feathers and even a piece of twine woven into it by it’s feathered builder. It was masterfully crafted and it’s current owner not only handled it with care but saw it’s tremendous value. Week after week, The Lady of the Box would open the lid revealing a symbol for the week’s lesson – a seashell for safety, a kite for possibility, headphones for connection, and so on.

Week nine of The Artist’s Way, our assignment was to bring a totem or symbol to class. I wasn’t sure about a totem, but a symbol worked for me. Symbols can be concise and powerful reminders when words are abundant. We were asked to bring a totem/symbol to class representing one of our dreams fulfilled. When I considered the dreams I have, I realized many are in the gestation stage. Growth is happening, but they are not necessarily ready for the world.

My symbol, as it turns out, ended up being a nest – the first item our leader took from the box. I went on Pinterest and saw a small nest pendant made from wire and beads. Instead of purchasing it, I decided to try my hand at jewelry making, a feeble attempt, I might add. Jewelry design is not in my wheelhouse of creativity. My bird’s nest would contain three small beads, each representing the dreams that are still growing inside of me. I threaded my bright blue dreams onto the 20 gauge wire, weaving, twisting, bending the silver to create their shelter.

This is what I wrote in my morning pages after I had finished my symbol.

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Dreams are fragile

Dreams take time

Dreams grow on the inside even when there’s nothing to see on the outside

Dreams must be birthed

Dreams must leave the nest so they can soar

I made a nest for myself and one for The Lady of the Box as a gesture to thank her for being part of the nurturing process. She handled my dreams and the dreams of the other Artist Wayers as carefully as she held that nest on the first night of class.

As it turns out, this group was a very safe place for dreams whether they were still being incubated or standing on the edge of the nest poised to soar.

The Artist’s Way: Exposing the Critic

She points her bony finger in my face as accusations roll from her tongue. Her hand is stripped of flesh, only muscle and sinew, hideous to look at yet commanding my attention. She is harsh and often times, very cruel. The nails at the end of her digits jab into my soul, picking at the same places she has dug into before. She is a relentless dream crusher who spews discouragement. Her favorite line, “You are too old to start this creative journey. You missed your time and now it’s long gone.”

The funny thing is, her voice sounds a lot like mine.

Describe your critic was the assignment given in class. I thought long and hard (as long and hard as one can do in the two minutes given before we were to begin). I closed my eyes and saw in my mind’s eye a bony, grotesque finger pointing in my face with the word NO. I let go and just started to write. And what you read was what poured onto the paper.

The critic can be a destructive force in one’s life. I know it has been in mine. They have much to say and are more than ready to offer an opinion whether solicited or not. My critic, as it turns out, is not an actual person but hangs with me like a squatter that has taken up residence in the backyard of my mind. She has no name and yet her voice, so familiar.

I consider myself an encourager to those around me. I try to pour into the lives of others and help them to discover their value and the creativity that is within them, and yet, when it comes to myself, to my creativity, I am critical. My hand has flesh, yet like my critic, it points to my art, to my ideas relentlessly jabbing and continually discouraging. My critic holds me to an unrealistic standard, a standard of perfection. And the results are often, no art at all.

I AM MY CRITIC!!!  I am harsh with the artist within me. I am demanding, discouraging, and rarely satisfied.

I saw a powerful movie last night that disturbingly illustrates the destructive power of the critic. Whiplash is not an easy movie to watch, but just viewing the trailer itself gets my point across.

When I saw that abusive teacher and the damage he was inflicting on his students, all in the name of creating excellent musicians, I felt sick. He was cruel, taking a talented young man who loved music into a dark world of self abuse, anger, and isolation.

To treat anyone like this would be abusive. And to constantly treat oneself critically is abusive as well. No one can grow and flourish under such conditions. Of course we need constructive input, but more than that, we need encouragers, dream builders, supporters, standing beside us, cheering us on in our art, in our life.

And now I find myself daily confronted with this challenge: how do I evict the internal critic and still keep the growing artist in residence?

The Artist’s Way: A Bran Bud in a Bowl of Froot Loops

What on earth am I doing here? In an effort to find out who I am, what I love, and how to express that, I have been on a quest of sorts. My role for 25 years was pretty clear – wife, mother, volunteer, worshiper, leader, caretaker, teacher, tutor, etc. But now, I am in that transitional place. Some call it empty nest and others, midlife, but regardless of the title you want to give it, I am determined to find out more about myself apart from the roles I have had most of my adult life.

And this led me to The Artist Way. At the close of the writing group I was a part of last year, I heard about an opportunity to join a group of people going through Julia Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. This book came highly recommended by many of my creative friends, so I purchased it two years ago in hopes it held the key to unlock more creativity in my life. Well, nothing would be unlocked as long as the book sat on my shelf gathering dust, so the decision seemed obvious.

The evening of the first class finally arrived. I walked nervously into the house and seated myself with the people perched around a dining room table, eight quiet souls waiting for the class to begin. The leader, The Lady of the Box I will call her, graciously welcomed us all. She shared how Julia Cameron views an Artist’s Way group as a Tribe. So in keeping with that idea, she lit a candle welcoming the spirit of acceptance and creativity. I got to tell you, it felt weird. The people I hang with don’t light candles for the tribe. We light them to make our house smell good. I kept telling myself, This is fine. These people are fine. We are all fine.

Then we each went around the circle sharing our name, a little about ourselves, and one of the dreams we have regarding creativity. My secret dream – to be an illustrator and writer. One by one, each person shared their desires. I discovered I was in a room filled with writers, poets, visual artists, all hoping to be changed, inspired, and emboldened through this class. I felt my shoulders descend and the pace of my heart slow. This is good. These people are good. These people are artists, just like you.

The evening continued. I really wasn’t sure what to think of the whole thing. I was uncomfortable. I felt vulnerable. I felt out of place. And yet, I had a strange excitement that maybe being out of my ordinary was exactly what this artist needed.

When I arrived home, my oldest daughter asked me, “So, how did it go?”

My response, “I felt like a Bran Bud in a bowl full of Froot Loops.”

“Mom, maybe you’ll discover that you are more like a Froot Loop than you think.”

The funny thing is, when I said that out loud, I actually thought being a Bran Bud was a good thing. Now, looking back on this 13 week journey, I’m not so sure anymore.

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For the next couple of posts, I hope to share some snapshots I took along the way, The Artist’s Way to be exact. It was a trip I will never forget. After all, a transformation from a Bran Bud to a Froot Loop is worth sharing. I hope you’ll join me.

Hanging Onto Every Word

We didn’t plan it. Actually it started as solution I came up with to help my husband gain some strength in his voice. More and more he was speaking at conferences on Technology and Ethics and almost every time, his voice would strain near the end his presentation. Being the fixer I suggested reading aloud might help. I grabbed a book I had on my shelf, and the metamorphosis began. I call it this because what started as a potential remedy to a problem actually grew into a lovely weekend activity that my husband and I have enjoyed together ever since.

We sat at the table with freshly brewed coffee and a copy of Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning. Kevin began reading the foreward, “When our children were young I would sometimes rise early on a Saturday morning and fix them pancakes for breakfast. It was great fun – the broken eggs, the spilt milk, the batter and the chatter.” The words cascaded from his mouth, gently, fluidly, all in his beautiful South African accent. I so love that accent. When he would call me when we were dating, I felt my knees go weak when I heard his voice on the other end. He continued to read, page after page, until the words were interrupted by the clearing of his throat, a sign of strain. He eventually passed it to me to carry on for a bit, and I gladly accepted. Back and forth, we handed the book to one another, taking turns reading. I don’t know where the time went. Two hours passed like it was a quick 15. Such a lovely morning it was.

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Sunday we decided to do the same, except this time our coffee would be accompanied by scrambled eggs with sauteed peppers and onions, sliced avocado, and toasted English muffins topped with real butter and locally farmed honey. After breakfast, Kevin took the lead, and I listened, sipping my coffee, hanging onto his every word. Something he read evoked a memory from my childhood, so he paused as I shared an experience from my adolescence, a painful memory that I hadn’t thought about in years. He listened intently to the details.

Then I read a bit, and he stopped me to discuss an idea presented by the author he had never thought of before. And this is how it went for the next 2 hours, the back and forth, memories, discussions, laughter, tears.

In those 4 short hours we spent reading that weekend, we discovered things about one another we had never known. We discussed topics that weren’t part of our regular dialogue. We were walking into uncharted territory and loved it.

Many months have passed and several books have been consumed and enjoyed by us both. I cherish our time. I love the unhurried tempo of our weekend mornings. I love that after spending over half my life with this man, I am still learning new things about him and myself as well.

But what I love even more is that I am still being read to in this season of my life. I find I am enjoying it every bit as much as I did as a child, maybe even more. I hope I never get too old for this.

Opting for Moments of Solitude

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My eyes feel like they are being pried apart, as I fight with everything I have to draw their curtains open. Maybe it’s the winter chill that makes me resist. I know I must rise though. As light pours into the windows of my soul, I am reminded it’s morning, a new day. My head hasn’t even left the pillow when my iPhone suddenly pings, alerting me to emails, voice mails, texts. Information sits at my bedside table like a puppy left in his crate all night barking for relief.

I know I signed up for these notifications. Weekly, the ten or so bloggers I follow announce that a new post is ready for me to enjoy. The red numbers beside the phone icon seem to scream out, “These people you actually care about, so much so you gave them your contact information, need you to respond NOW!” The point is, I am no victim here. I signed up for these and every morning, as I reluctantly turn off my alarm, they sit, waiting for my attention. Waiting might be the wrong word. Every morning they sit begging for my attention – at least it feels that way.

But aren’t these just notification, not critical alerts? By giving into the urgency of information first thing in the morning, I am missing the few moments of solitude I will have in the day. I am missing the sun rays streaming through my window creating patterns of light and dark on my walls. I am missing the teasing smell of dark roast coffee floating in the air, compliments of my automatic coffee maker. I am missing the sweet sound of birds outside my window or the soft mew of my cat, Annie. I am missing the miracle of being able to greet one more day. I am missing the joy of a good long stretch and how it makes me feel. I am missing opportunities to ponder my dreams. I am bypassing this small window of solitude in favor of the pinging alerts from my phone. Without thought, almost as an involuntary response, I am reaching for my phone to check emails, the weather, blogs, and all before my feet hit the floor.

I love reading blogs. I love getting information. I love emails, voice mails, and texts. I like knowing if I should wear a sweater for the day or opt for a lighter option. These things inspire and inform me, but in some way, they set my mind in motion, leaving no room for reflection, peace, or even gratitude. Believe me, I wouldn’t want to live in a world where I didn’t receive emails, texts, or blog posts. But perhaps, taking the time to enjoy a snatch of early morning solitude could make my world a lovelier place.

I’ll let you know.

Comfortable with Being Undone

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Undone is one of those words that troubles me. I don’t like things undone. Undone seems to indicate unfinished, incomplete, imperfect, unaccomplished, unfulfilled. I am uncomfortable with these synonyms. Finished, complete, perfect, accomplished – I want my life as art to be characterized by these terms. The trouble is this is not how life is lived.

If blogging has taught me anything, it has taught me to live with being undone. There are times when I start a post, jotting down first thoughts, many of which come from my unedited morning pages. The words pile up on the white space. I sit with them, rearranging, rereading, rewording, re-crafting, and over time, they come together in form of a blog. I like what I see, and deep inside I sense it’s done.

And then there are the undone times. They start just like the done times do, with first thoughts on a page. But then the words get stuck, and soon fail to come. These were continual times of frustration for me. Why couldn’t my thoughts come together with grace and ease like the ones the day before? Why the strain?

The strain was not in the words but in me. When I released the words, they came, unforced and unrestrained. But when I compelled the words, the product was unnatural and contrived. I was forcing the creative process. When the ideas cease, it is not a call for me to strain, to force creativity. It is a time to rest, to put aside these ideas, giving them more time to gestate and giving me more time to rest and be inspired. When creativity is forced, we become manufacturers of a product. But is that what we want, to be in the manufacturing business? Don’t we want to be artists, poets, dreamers, visionaries, painters, lovers, those who inspire?

I still find myself fighting the undone seasons of life, of art, but to be creative, I must learn to be comfortable with the undone moments. These are times of rest, times of reflection, times to be inspired again.

Today, I am undone.