An Epic Journey.

Most of you probably know that for the past year I’ve been working on a book proposal of a memoir about my mother and her experience with breast cancer. Some of you have asked how the process is going. Some of you have asked when you can expect to grab your copy off the shelf of your local bookstore, bless your souls. I bask in your optimism.

This project has been a long time coming; I lost count of how many times mom and I elbowed each other whenever things got hard and said “more fodder for the memoir, eh?” This was said with wry sarcasm, but then one day, it wasn’t. “Let’s write a book together.” And it turns out that she was dead serious. (Forgive the pun. If you’re not laughing, well, she is.)

It was a project we began to dream about together. It was a project that she had the courage to conceive of, even if she wasn’t sure she would ever see it come to fruition in her lifetime. She sat down and in six months wrote 15 chapters all by herself. My mother (if you’re trying to picture her, imagine part Julie Andrews, part Lorelai Gilmore) was a woman who knew what she wanted and made it happen, whether it was defying doctors’ prognoses or writing a book about it.

Me, on the other hand? I know what I want, but I tend be a little less self-assured, a little more cynical, a little tip-toey around the things I want and how to get them. So when my friend sat down on my couch a year ago and said “now’s the time and I’m here to be your agent,” I was excited, but also scared. I waded in the shallow waters for awhile before feeling ready to dive in with this book business.

It was – as it always seems to be where I’m concerned – a problem of knowing just enough to stand in my own way.

Writing a book, in case you’re not aware, is a long, arduous path. It’s an epic journey. It’s Frodo taking The Ring to Mordor ambitious, complete with Orcs and the occasional giant, flesh-eating arachnid. Some call her Shelob, but her real name is Your Emotional Baggage, and she tends to emerge from your bedroom closet just when you’re about to write the most vulnerable parts of your story.*

But I digress.

The point is, I knew this going in. I knew that it would be hard and risky and frustrating and slow and terrifying and that there are no shortcuts and there are definitely no guarantees.

And knowing this perhaps slowed me down a bit. It took a few months to let the “OMG A PUBLISHER IS GOING TO READ THIS” performance anxiety to wear off, another month or two to crank out enough material to form a first draft of a proposal, another month to write a draft of a sample chapter, another month to edit a draft of mom’s sample chapter. And then another month after that to edit all of it into one cohesive proposal and send it to my agent. (In my defense, I was working a full time job and trying to maintain a blog… Oh little blog, poor neglected thing. File this under things they don’t tell you about writing a book : having an online platform is essential to acquiring a book deal these days, but growing said platform while working on a book is next to impossible. The system is rigged, you guys.)

A couple months after that, a publisher finally nibbled at the bait on my hook. A few friendly email exchanges later, we set up a time to chat over the phone.

“So what can we expect from this phone call?” I asked my agent. “Will we talk timeline? Numbers?”

“Friend,” he said very gently, “Writing a book has five steps. You are still on Step One.”

So you see, even in my attempts to prepare myself, I still was not prepared for this process. We never will be, so we have to be faithful and diligent to the process anyway.

The phone call with the nibbling publisher went pretty well. They complimented me on my writing and said they’d been following me for awhile (!!!!!), we talked about the proposal, I tried not to get too numbers-specific with my tiny little platform, we schemed about a possible opportunity, I got a little excited and over-promised on delivery, and in the end, no matter how hopeful I wanted to be about the whole thing, it just wasn’t the right fit. They were asking me to work on something separate from the mom memoir, and as much as I feel that this other project is a book I will write someday, that time is not now. It was a square peg in a round hole and lemme tell you: this method of forcing words does. not. work.

You know those writers that are all seven steps to the book deal of your dreams and three habits that helped me write a thousand words in an hour and start waking up at five a.m. and you’ll become a NYT bestselling author in 10 days? You guys. They’re lying. OR, maybe it did actually work for them, but it doesn’t work for everyone, and I am one of the everyone else whose best work happens in the hard, slow, quiet moments. And you know what else? That’s okay. There’s a lot of really magnificent people in this camp that have created beautiful things when they allowed the words to flow naturally from life to the page.

So over winter break I came to terms with the facts :

Fact A : forcing words is not my modus operandi

Fact B : rejection from a publisher can be a lot less painful and a lot more freeing if I let it.

It seems they were confused about why I had structured the manuscript the way that I had. At first their confusion raised my hackles and provoked a few fangs and growls, but after I thought about it for awhile and ate a few dozen bowls of ice cream, it hit me. I had picked the most straightforward (read: utterly boring) way to structure my manuscript possible. Why had I done that?

I did that because I was afraid to take risks with it. I was afraid they wouldn’t see my vision. So I chose not to have a vision and just to give the straight-facts version of this story, which actually isn’t the same as telling it true.

And when I finally understood this and sat down to give it another go, a whole new proposal came tumbling out – new premise, new chapter structure, new title, new sample chapter. One that feels a lot less Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and much more memoir-ish, the way a book about a person’s real life ought to be.

And as it goes, now that I have a second draft that I love, the project is in limbo. (Remember the part where I compared writing a book to LOTR? Just when you think it’s almost over, it goes on for another 45 minutes and you really have to pee. And we’re only on Year One, Part One, Step One, Lord help us.)

It’s in limbo because my dear friend and agent has taken on some new opportunities, and we both feel it would be more efficient for both of us if we found me a female agent that has the expertise to help me market this book. (I’m writing about breast cancer and womanhood, you guys. It is what it is.) And I feel really good about this decision, despite having to gear myself up for the journey that is finding a compatible agent.

So that’s my #realtalk about year one of my journey to publishing my first book.

And it taught me so much about myself as a writer. Believe it or not, I don’t say this begrudgingly. This first year in My Epic Journey to Writing a Book revealed a couple of other facts about myself to me:

Fact C : despite our recent decision to find a new agent, were it not for my friend sitting on my couch a year ago and offering to help me, this journey may never have gotten started. And for that reason, I have nothing but gratitude for him.

Fact D : all of this epic journeying so far has done nothing to dissuade me of the truth that I am, in fact, a writer. (Please point me to this sentence in this blog post later when I’m sobbing to you about how it’s never going to happen for me.)

If you’ve read to the end of this diatribe (with or without skimming), bless you. I’ll be back with updates as I have them, but until then, I’m hoping to appear a lot more regularly on this here blog with other thoughts about life and faith and all manner of bloggy things. Perhaps by the time the book deal actually happens, my platform might be a smidge bigger to please those pesky, numbers-savvy publishers. Either way I’m glad you’re here. I love you all. I wouldn’t be doing any of this if it weren’t for you.

*It helps to have a Samwise Gamgee for moments such as this. Thanks to my dear hubs, Matthew Jason, for casting light at every vital moment and never letting me go it alone no matter how delusional stubborn I am. And thanks to my friend and agent-now-helping-me-find-a-better-agent, Darrell Vesterfelt. You saw something I didn’t yet see in myself. I’m so thankful for you. And to the rest of you, dear friends and readers, thanks for your endless support and faith. We’re getting there, one step at a time.

One Word 2014 : Thrive.

I chose Faithfulness as my One Word for 2013. It’s from a favorite hymn of mother’s, the last one she sang to me before she died and the one we sang at her funeral. I had it inscribed as a tattoo on my wrist on the anniversary of her death last January.

The lyrics to the chorus go, “Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”

But honestly, I think I got the Faithfulness thing backwards in 2013. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to achieve an elusive measure of faithfulness that would make me feel satisfied, confident and whole. And at the same time, I was trying to hide from the hard parts of faithfulness : the showing up and being present in my life every day, the vulnerability of it, the steady work that it takes – whether or not there’s an end or an accolade in sight. Yet when I sat down to make a list of everything that marked this year – books I read, music and movies I loved, places I went, people I met, friendships that flourished, words I wrote, tasks I accomplished – I was astonished by how full my life was.

For the record, this is what Faithfulness looked like in 2013 :

Books :
- Wild by Cheryl Strayed
- Jesus Feminist by Sarah Bessey
- When We Were on Fire by Addie Zierman
- Packing Light by Allison Vesterfelt
- A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver
- A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
- Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
- Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist
- Quiet by Susan Cain
- The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
- The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom
- Help, Thanks, Wow by Anne Lamott
- Rereads: The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants Series & The Last Summer (of You and Me) by Ann Brashares, The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneggar, Homecoming by Bernard Schlink

People I Connected With (online, some face-to-face) : 

- Natalie Trust
- Tamara Barrick Rice
- Cara Strickland
- Abi Bechtel
- Suzannah Paul
- Dianna Anderson
- Dani Kelley
- Benjamin Moberg
- Micah Murray

Places I Went :
- The Dominican Republic : service project
- Eagle River, Wisc. : camping with the hubs
- Bloomington, Ind. : visiting friends from my study abroad trip
- Norwalk, Ohio : my first-ever speaking gig!
- Nashville, Tenn. : vacation with my hubs
- Fargo, N.D. : Thanksgiving with my sis in-law & niecey

Words I Wrote (most popular posts) :
- Where Have All the Millennials Gone? Entitlement in the Economy & the Church
- RELEVANT : Angelina Jolie and Every Woman’s Choice
- I Am Done With Being Quiet
- When It’s the Worst Thanksgiving Ever
- When the Story Isn’t Mine to Tell
- It is Good : An Ode to My Body
- When I Say I Wouldn’t Trade It
- On Mourning Mother’s Day

Personal Accomplishments :
- got a tattoo
- paid off my credit card
- finally worked out a reasonable payment plan with Sallie Mae
- hubs & I both received raises AND bonuses from work
- finished & submitted a first draft of my book proposal + two sample chapters (update on this coming soon)
- got my first-ever speaking gig

BUT SERIOUSLY. Why had I been so hard on myself about living up to a measure of faithfulness when all of this good stuff was already happening? (Why is this always the question I’m asking myself?)

I’m reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly right now, and in her chapter “Vulnerability Armory” she talks about our habits of deflecting vulnerability. As I was reading, I realized that “foreboding joy” is a big shield for me : living in a constant state of anxiety over the worst case scenario. I use it in an effort to prepare for and/or shield myself from pain, but it has kept me from fully living into joy. It leaves me desperate and insecure, unable to see the blessings in my midst and therefore totally ungrateful for them.

This year taught me that every time I think faithfulness is about me and my ability to measure up or follow through, it is in fact, about God’s faithfulness – His radical, loving, everlasting and totally unconditional faithfulness to us. Just as the hymn goes.

I decided that this year I want to put down that shield of foreboding joy. I want to stop letting anxiety and desperation control me. I want to notice the blessings in my midst. I want to act from a place of abundance and enough-ness, instead of scarcity.

And so, the word that I’m choosing for 2014 is THRIVE.

It’s not a list of goals to accomplish or taking the year by storm. It’s not behavior modification with a bunch of new habits. It’s not about measuring up or fitting a standard. It’s about being vulnerable enough to feel joy and practice gratitude.

Thriving is about living into His faithfulness to me.

Advent Reflection : Love Made Flesh.

I went looking for myself yesterday. I do this sometimes when I’m feeling lost and numb; I go looking for the more hopeful, articulate, comforting version of me in the one place I know I’ll find her: my words. Lately I’ve been feeling sad and cynical and Bah-Humbug-ish, like I’m going through the motions of this season instead of really feeling its joy. Thus began my search for the me somewhere in time that had a better grasp on this whole Advent thing. I found this post that I wrote last year and it centered my heart right where it needed to be. I hope it does the same for you.

This is an edit and repost of a piece I wrote for Allison Vesterfelt last December.

A few nights ago, my husband and I went to a Christmas party. We sang carols and ate cookies and caught up with old friends, and to my surprise, a newborn baby found his way into my arms. Friends of ours just gave birth to their firstborn son a few weeks ago, and they brought him to the party with them.

Christmastime is a season of grief for me as I remember the last days of my mother’s life. It is difficult to reconcile the merry and bright with that sense of brokenness and longing, difficult to keep my heart open to the hope and joy of Advent when it is being swallowed by commercialism. But as I held that fragile, perfect, eight-pound peanut of a baby boy, the cynicism and cliche of this whole season didn’t seem so cheap. I looked at his sleeping face, felt his tiny heart beating against his tiny ribcage as I wrapped my arms around him and I was reminded of how Christ came to us:  not as a fully grown man, but as a baby. He could have chosen to come to us in any form He wanted. He could have chosen not to come at all.

But instead, He chose to take on the full experience of humanity from birth to death.

He understood things like grief and government oppression and the mundane brokenness of everyday life. He has always understood it, but He chose to demonstrate it in the most profound way possible, by taking on the journey of humanity.

When tragedy happens, we want an end to the pain and oppression and injustice. We want to make laws and condemn people, we want to overthrow governments, we want to eradicate all illness, everywhere, forever. We want change, and we want it by force.

But God has shown us in the life of Christ that redemption begins with humility, relationship, empathy. 

I find that so radical, so comforting, and it is this that fills me with joy in a season so riddled with cliches and catchphrases and commercialism. This is where I find healing for the hurt when I miss my mother or when someone says something terrible or when I hear that someone I love has lost someone they love :

That God saw fit to walk in our shoes, to put flesh on His love for us, to come directly into the darkness with us.

My hope is that we can offer that kind of hope to others this holiday season. Not the kind that offers any sort of platitude for their pain or any sort of policy to place over the brokenness.

Just empathy. Light in the darkness. Love in the flesh. Comfort and joy.

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Book Review of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild

On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I was wandering through a small bookshop in Fargo, North Dakota when I found a copy of Wild and bought it on impulse. I should have been focused on Christmas shopping for friends and family rather than myself, but we had a long drive back to Chicago the next day with my inlaws and I knew I needed something to read on the ride home. Friends had recommended Strayed’s memoir to me on several different occasions, and I’d also had friends say they were disappointed by it, so I decided to satisfy my curiosity.

For those of you that haven’t heard of it, Wild is the story of Cheryl Strayed’s solo hike across the Pacific Crest Trail. In the wake of her mother’s death from lung cancer, Strayed’s relationships to her siblings and stepdad disintegrated and she destroyed her marriage with a series of infidelities. So in the summer of 1995, at the age of 26 and newly divorced, Strayed packed up her life and hiked 1,100 miles – completely alone – from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State in order to “save herself.”

Few books have made me cry harder than this one. Strayed’s writing is sharp and raw and honest in a way that made me feel as though I was hiking 1,100 miles right through her emotions. Considering that I lost my own mother to cancer two short years ago at nearly the same age and stage of my life, it wasn’t hard for me to empathize. Our lives and beliefs are very different from one another, but our bonds to our mothers and their subsequent deaths are agonizingly similar.

“She was my mother, but I was motherless. I was trapped by her but utterly alone. She would always be the empty bowl that no one could fill. I’d have to fill it myself again and again and again.”

While I know myself better than to think I could hike a thousand miles through desert and wilderness all alone, even so, grief feels exactly that way: you are walking through a solitary, unyielding landscape while the rest of the world hums on around you in the distance.

I have often longed for a literal wilderness to run to in my own journey through grief. Living “life as usual” after this kind of loss is in some ways harder than doing what Strayed did. The normalcy of everyday life doesn’t reflect the wildness and turmoil taking place in your inner life. Thus, the urge to self-destruct is more powerful than one imagines before such profound loss. This urge is not so much a desire to destroy every good thing you have left so much as it is a force at work inside you, a chasm within yourself, a black hole where the bright star of your loved one once existed, around which you once orbited, steady and safe. You think yourself a reasonable, grounded, healthy person with a support system of loved ones who will never let you waiver over the edges of your life … until that person who loved you and knew you better than anyone else is gone. Then the vast emptiness left in their place threatens to swallow your life whole, no matter how hard you try. It is disorienting and therefore very hard to recover any sense of stability you may have had in that “before” version of yourself. Were it not for my family and my faith, I may have made similar choices to Strayed.

Strayed draws on the wildness of nature to help us better understand this wildness of grief. In the lifestyle that most of us live in (sub)urban sprawl, it’s easy to ignore life’s transience, but in the wilderness, we’re forced into awareness of nature’s rhythms, to confront our smallness and mortality. Strayed captures this parallel journey between hiking the PCT and her emotional pilgrimage through grief with great power and precision. There are several parts of the book that made me teary and one part that was absolutely annihilating. I won’t allude to which passage because I think part of what made it so powerful was the element of surprise – one moment she’s hiking down the trail and the next, I am bent over the book sobbing uncontrollably, much to the bewilderment of my husband. It’s intense.

All of that being said, a few people warned me that Strayed’s book would disappoint me, and I have to admit that they were partly right. The end of her journey felt anticlimactic. I found myself wishing that she would have lingered longer over the moment when she reached her chosen destination, creating a stronger emotional shift as she ended her hike. After four months and 1,100 miles, I wanted there to be a vivid and tangible sense of resolution to counteract the emotional turmoil we find her in at the beginning.

But it’s this sense of disappointment that I think is important, and maybe even intentional on Strayed’s part. It speaks to the frustration of grief and how it never really and finally resolves itself. And I think that’s where I understand and respect her ending.

When you’ve suffered such a profound loss, you want to conquer grief once and for all and come away from it a totally transformed person, having straightened out your bent towards self-destruction, entirely at peace with yourself. You long for accomplishment. A clear beginning and end. But the reality is that you may come to a point in your grief when you feel like the worst is behind you, but instead of feeling fiercely victorious, you feel a sense of gratitude mixed with confusion. You wonder why you’re not crying with relief like you expected to. But it’s because you know that while you’ve reached this point, there will also be more moments ahead of you when you’ll feel the old familiar ache again.

You will realize anew that no matter where you are in life, you are always making the same choice.

“I looked north, in its direction – the very thought of that bridge a beacon to me. I looked south, to where I’d been, to the wild land that had schooled and scorched me, and considered my options. There was only one, I knew. There was always only one. To keep walking.”

Ultimately, I think Strayed remained to true to herself, to her journey, and to the universal experience of grief. As a writer in the midst of telling my own grief story, I’m challenged by that. I don’t necessarily want my readers to feel like I’ve wasted their time by the end of my book, but I also don’t want to leave them with the false impression that it all comes to a tidy, triumphant end. That’s just not the nature of grief. It is wild and untamed. Let it be.

Have you read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild? What did you think of it? Did it resonate with your experiences of grief ? Why or why not? What are the best memoirs you have read on grief? 

When It’s the Worst Thanksgiving Ever.

It was a knock-down, drag out fight. And it was happening in our living room on Thanksgiving Day 2011. There was no family gathering of the eat-turkey-and-watch-football variety, but there in our living room, we were gathered around a hospice bed that other people had died in, and now it was mom’s turn, and for shame, we were standing over her and shouting.

We had just brought her home from the hospital. She had been there for weeks, I’ve forgotten how long. I had been camped out in her room of the fifth floor oncology wing of Sparrow Hospital during most of that time, sleeping on a vinyl pull-out couch at night, driving home every couple days to shower and grab clean clothes. A couple of days before the holiday, her doctors sat us down in a half-circle of chairs around her bed to tell us that she only had a six weeks left. I remember that as one of the worst days of my life, perhaps more than the morning of her death. They made arrangements for her to have in-home hospice care, and we brought her home on that Thanksgiving afternoon.

And so there we were, each of us shaken and exhausted. We all wanted every other person in the room to go to the Thanksgiving dinner at my grandparents’ house so that we could have time alone with mom. And so, in our attempt to love her well to the end, we argued over her.

It was The Worst Thanksgiving Ever.

It felt like acutely like failure and death, made all the more painful with the knowledge that while we were grieving and fighting, everyone else was cozying up by the big Butterball turkey and toasting to another great year. I felt so utterly bitter and broken.

But after we had each retreated to a small corner of the house for the night, after we had each shed our tears and gotten a little bit of sleep and found some forgiveness, we were able to regroup and say some hard, necessary apologies.

In the weeks that followed, I remember the feeling that Death was right at our doorstep, but Love was just as present, gathering us together by candlelight in the darkness. We survived somehow, although the feelings of thankfulness and peace and joy were slow coming.

There are some seasons of your life when it all just feels like too much, you know?

Instead of counting our blessings, Thanksgiving feels like a cruel cliche rubbed into our pain like salt on a wound. Instead of rearranging furniture for the Christmas tree, we find ourselves making room for a hospice bed. Instead of bringing everyone together for the big feasts of our childhood, we’re planning for a funeral. Instead of greeting the season with glad tidings and great joy, we’re saying goodbye to the life we knew.

It’s enough to make you scream and shout and weep and fall apart, and if you do, I want you to know, it’s okay. Everyone wants to act like the holidays are the time to have our ish together, all charming and cheerful like a freaking Norman Rockwell, but we all know it’s never really like that, even on our best days, right? Everyone will deal with the situation the best they know how, and sometimes that looks like the worst ever. And sometimes, it looks like starting over with an apology and a hug more comforting and life-giving than even mom’s sweet potato casserole.

Give each other space and forgiveness.

Give yourself space and forgiveness to grieve this season.

Grace is the blessing that is always present.

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The Good Things.

Today I’m doing something a bit different on the blog, thanks to Hännah Ettinger over at Wine & Marble, who suggested that we link up and share at least five unidentified thanks to those who have made 2013 a better, more whole, and more healing year for us. Frankly, after the week I’ve had (first car accident, heavy work load, minimal writing productivity, internet crazies) I could do with a bit of gratitude. Also, I’m fiercely protective Thanksgiving season and I refuse to get Christmasy before first giving thanks. So there. Here we go :

1. At the beginning of the year, I got involved in an online discussion regarding a certain post (that shall not be named or linked to for the sake of everyone’s sanity.) One thing led to another, and basically, I had a mini meltdown on twitter, complete with subtweets and a call for Christian unity. #facepalm #NotMyProudestMoment. So this particular note of gratitude is to those that got caught in the crosshairs of my frustration, and I want to start by saying I’m sorry. I really regret it – both my opinions and my behavior. It was coming from a place of ignorance about a lot of different things and since then I’ve tried my damndest to shut up and listen to you. We don’t always agree, and I’m not very vocal either way, but it’s not because I’m not paying attention to you, it’s because I learned my lesson. Thank you for speaking up. Thank you for not letting me silence you. Thank you for not totally writing me off, and in some cases, for befriending me in spite of what happened.

2. As the only appropriate follow-up to Thank You No. 1, this is a thank-you to the people in my life who have walked with me through so many personal changes. A lot of what I believe about faith and politics have shifted in the last few years. I am deeply grateful to those of you who never treated me like a lost cause in my ignorance, who graciously offered me a new perspective, who heard out my doubts and frustrations and crazy questions, who continue to show me love and respect. Even if we never agree with each other on certain issues, you’ve taught me Grace.

3. For almost a year now we’ve been chatting to each other back and forth nearly every day about everything from the internets to birth control to career building to relationships, and I have to say it’s been a highlight of this season in my life. Thank you for letting me be vulnerable with you about the best and worst parts of me; thank you for being vulnerable with me about yours. We’re each going through so many personal transitions, but your friendship has been a steadfast place of comfort and encouragement. Whoever said that online friendships are fake is doing it wrong.

4. You’ve had a tough year, friend. But I’ve watched you flourish in it, too. My heart broke for you last fall, and again early this summer. We both know what it feels like to lose faith and trust for this whole hope thing, don’t we? And yet you continue to be brave and take risks and in case you haven’t noticed, you have community of women, a flock of beautiful birds, that have found a haven in your brave mama heart. I just want you to know how thankful I am for you, whom I consider a big sister in both faith and storytelling. Thank you for the moments we’ve shared of leaning into the hard places of our lives, talking about our fears, talking about our plans, talking about our dreams.

5. We don’t see each other or talk to each other every day or even every week, but we’ve been close friends for close to a decade now and your joyfulness, silliness, and go-get-’em attitude inspire me daily. You have always been there for me, even when I’m quiet, even when I’m angry, even when we lived together and I was forever leaving my dirty dishes in the sink without washing them off first. I lovelovelove you. Always.

6. Remember that day when you texted me the words to my favorite Shel Silverstein poem as an apology for that really ugly fight we had the day before? It’s been two years, and I still think about that moment every time I think about you and how much our relationship has changed. Your support means the world to me. I have a lifetime of thank-yous that I can’t list here, but this I can say : thank you for seeing me, for working hard with me to change our relationship, for saying you’re sorry and accepting my apologies too, and for always taking care of me the best that you know how. I love you.

In Which I Learn to Call Myself a Jesus Feminist.

Awhile back Sarah Bessey wrote this post, In Which I am Learning to Own My Authority. It was one of those posts that echoed in my hearts for days and weeks and months afterward. It sprang up in my thoughts whenever I came face-to-face with my self-doubt, calling me toward boldness.

“I’m a woman still learning how to walk in my authority as a daughter of the King. I’m not supposed to apologize for what God has shown me or done in my life. But here I am, dulling my voice, fitting the too-small box of God-breathed womanhood, shrugging off. [...] After all this time, I still minimize the work and goodness and grace of God in my life out of fear. [...] Because I am writing about a thorny issue, and because I am nervous about how it will be received, my fear was coming across in my tone more than I realized. And that tone – apologizing, fearful, ‘hey, here’s an idea…’ – was undermining the very message and intent of my work at its very core, disproving my very thesis.”

Her words resonate so deeply because they are my experience too. Like Sarah, I’ve begun to notice the subtle, deeply engrained habit of doubting God’s work in my life and my own ability to discern it.

Even six months ago, I was not comfortable with calling myself a feminist. I’ve loved the idea of feminism, I’ve loved the idea of women’s equality, I’ve written about it here and there for years as I’ve felt empowered to do so. But I would always shrink back from it, afraid that I would become the caricature of feminism that church and secular culture depict: shrill, man-hating, hell-bent on flipping the gender-hierarchy in women’s favor and destroying the nuclear family.

If I call myself a feminist, am I working against God’s will? Is it really not His desire that all people be treated as fully human, male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free? 

But I’ve learned so much about feminism from people like Sarah Bessey and Rachel Held Evans and Dianna Anderson and Hila Sachar and Danielle Vermeer and Emily Maynard, who have introduced me to other voices that have changed my understanding of both feminism and my faith. And the more I’ve learned about feminism, the more I’ve learned that my longing to see men and women work together, is God at work in my life. And I had been letting the fear and sexism of my culture (Christian and secular alike) tell me that I was not capable of discerning God’s work in my own heart.

My fear and doubt and insecurity over calling myself a feminist is symptomatic of patriarchy at work in my own life. Questioning my own authority is a product of abusive power dynamics. And it occurred to me, even amidst my wavering hope in the Church, that Jesus was never the one to silence or shame people for asking questions, male or female.

My conservative, evangelical upbringing did not give me a theological framework for engaging feminism, but that didn’t mean the theological framework didn’t exist.

The door has been flung wide open to express the doubt and hurt and frustration that I had been trying to hide away for so long. And I’ve found hope and joy for what my faith, my work, my relationships and my politics could be if I just stepped into my identity as God’s daughter, as equal and capable as His sons. There is so much I still don’t understand, so much I still don’t know about living this out in my life, but I believe that even learning to voice our questions in safe community with one another is an important part of debunking the false authority of patriarchal power structures. Those power structures tell us that asking questions is a form of weakness, but it is a form of strength. I don’t need to have it all figured out in order to call myself a feminist. I don’t need to have it all figured out to call myself a Christian.

Jesus Feminism is where I’ve found my voice to articulate my faith and my feminism in a new way, to engage them together, rather than holding them at odds.

So I am my mother’s daughter : I am the daughter of strong female leadership. I am the daughter of a mother who worked a full time job, lived with breast cancer for 14 years, and was one of the first women to serve on the board of her American Baptist Church.*

I am married to a musician : I am the wife of a husband who is kind and creative in a time when our culture doesn’t value those qualities in men. I believe that patriarchal power structures hurt all of society, men and women alike, and my husband and I are working together to overcome that.

I am baptist born-and-raised : I am the child of a church that was very conservative and very evangelical, but also very loving and *willing to change when they felt God moving.

I am a millennial writer : I am a member of an “entitled” generation, who earned my degree and entered the job market in the middle of a recession, who has struggled through my fair share of cynicism toward the Church, and I am living out my calling as a writer both in my full-time job and in my creative endeavors.

And I am a Jesus Feminist. I am learning to be a feminist the way that Jesus is a feminist. Because I follow Jesus, I want to see God’s redemptive movement for women arch towards justice. And I am not afraid to say that this is how God is at work in my life.

This post is in conjunction with Sarah Bessey’s Jesus Feminist synchroblog to celebrate the launch of her book. I received my copy in the mail this weekend and I’m already loving it. Wherever you are in your beliefs about gender roles or Christianity or both, I highly recommend it.  

The Nature of Things.

It is the great echoing of the universe that comes back to you, in your loneliness, to remind you that this vast, complex longing is what gives you belonging to this world. The ocean ebbs and flows, the weather rages and quiets, the day rises and falls to the light and darkness, with you. The trees burst and lose their leaves in a pattern of life and death as a reminder : this mournful, barren winter is real; this small bud of hope called spring is real. This substance of your self, skin and blood and bone and water, is the universe in and outside of you, too. It is your companion, the honest one that does not ask you to keep shining brightly when your day has ended and it is time to rest. When the tide is out, the slender white heron lands gracefully in the twilight, in the soft sponge of the bay to eat; everything at home in its time. Nature is an invitation: the world is yours, and all the seasons in it, you.

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From Ashes : When We Were On Fire Syncroblog

The morning after my 26th birthday, I am standing at the bathroom sink washing my face. I pat my cheeks dry with the towel and examine my reflection in the mirror, the corners of my eyes and the color of my hair. It’s weird to think that ten years ago, I was just sixteen. Who was I then? Am I so different now? What would she think of me? What do I think of her?

I leave the bathroom, but instead of going to my laptop to write I wander over to my closet, where I grab a dusty stack of Mead journals off the shelf. I climb back into bed with them, pulling the bottom from the stack, and open to the first pages.

On my sixteenth birthday my boyfriend made me a cake and wrote me a love poem and gave me a picture in a black frame, of us on a missions trip in South Dakota earlier that summer. In the photo I am sunburnt and smiling; his hand cups my chin possessively and he’s sporting eyeliner and my pink bandana.

We were on again/off again in a pattern that exactly mirrored his relationship status with Jesus. When he was on fire for God again, it rekindled our romance too, it seemed. I thought I could pull him back from the darkness. I thought I was safe as long as he went to church and said he believed like me.

But a week after my birthday, a week after he lit candles on my cake while we stood by his locker at school, our relationship was snuffed out once more and so was his relationship with God, and I was in the dark about all of it.

I’m sitting in my favorite spot on the couch, watching reruns after dinner and homework, when the phone rings.

“Hey, would you mind if I picked you up for a drive?” says a familiar voice. I’m surprised to hear it, and I hesitate. It’s late and cold and I don’t feel like leaving the house, and I also have a sinking feeling that I know what I’m in for. But my house is small and the walls are thin and we have things to say to each other that don’t need to be overheard, so I say yes and wait by the window for the swoop of his headlights to appear in our driveway.

I walk out to meet him and slide into the seat of his parents’ old Buick and he hugs me. I feel the cool leather of his letter jacket against my cheek and I shouldn’t feel this apprehensive but I do. Soon we are driving down back country roads, a mile or two from my house. The stars glimmer and the moon shines mutely over bare corn fields in the November night. The car glides along in silence.

I have been dreading this moment. It’s been weeks since we hung out, let alone since we took a drive to talk. Our late night drives were sacred, filled with big ideas about faith and church and school and friends and family and leadership and God. It felt like the deepest kind of friendship, we were brother and sister in Christ, we could tell each other anything. But he’s been freezing me out lately, probably in hopes that I’ll come to my senses and break up with my boyfriend, with whom I am still on again/off again. We are two children playing with a light switch, and I know it’s driving all of our friends crazy.

Now the moment has come when all the pent up frustration between my friend and I will come tumbling out in the name of “holding one another accountable.” We’re leaders in our youth group at church, this is what we do.

Finally, he sighs and pulls off to the shoulder and cuts the engine. The quiet is deafening. I brace myself.

“I’m worried about you, Bethany,” he begins. “I’m worried about our group and what all of this is doing to our leadership. You’re hurting our cause.”

As iron sharpens iron, so one opinion sparks the reaction of another. We argue, our angry words exploding between us in the darkness. We are shouting and crying and finally I stop cold.

“Take me home,” I demand. He doesn’t move and for a moment I’m scared that he will actually refuse me. “Take me home or I’ll walk there myself.” Finally he turns the key to start the engine again.

Once we’re home I slam the car door and don’t really speak to him again for months. It is the last time we go for a late night drive. It is the first time that I look at him and see him for the teenage boy that he is, human and imperfect and struggling to understand love and relationships and God and faith, just like I am. It is the first time I really understand that neither of us know what these things mean. It is the first time I realize that it is okay that we don’t know what these things mean. I’m beginning to wonder if our belief that we did know was what sent things up in flames in the first place.

Several months later, I break up with my boyfriend over the phone on a hot, lonely summer day when everything we had left to say to each other is gone. But this time, it’s different. I don’t hole up in my room, listening to music and crying. I don’t call up my friends to tell them what happened and repent of this ridiculous relationship yet again.

Instead, I march out to the shed behind our garage and wrangle my old, rusty bicycle from its hanging rack and pedal myself down the driveway. The sun blazes against my bare shoulders but the wind feels nice and I glide down the back roads behind my house alone, and I feel something entirely new. I think it is delight. I think it is God’s love.

I remember all of it so vividly – the missions trips and retreats and romances, the concerts and core groups, the worship sets and weekend bonfires. We had so much zeal. We had so much passion and fire for our faith that at times we were consumed by it, we raged out of control, we hurt each other deeply. Our relationships burned brightly and then faded and when the smoke was gone we wandered in the darkness, wondering where exactly we went wrong.

We didn’t understand then that “Christian” relationships don’t necessarily mean healthy or safe relationships.

We didn’t understand that our attempts to save each other’s souls were destroying our friendships.

We didn’t understand grace.

I really want to forget that girl. I really want to take this whole stack of Mead journals and all the angst and anxiety inside them and toss it in the trash. But oh, a piece of my heart is in there. The girl I was is wrapped up inside of the woman I am. So I keep them as a way of remembering that from the ashes of every burnt out belief rises grace and love and a new way of understanding God.

This post is written in conjunction with the When We Were On Fire Syncroblog for Addie Zierman. I have been following Addie’s blog for a couple of years now and she’s one of my favorite writers. Her book, When We Were On Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over, just came out this week and I can’t wait to finally get it in the mail in the next couple of days. I haven’t even read it yet, but I can tell you with confidence : Go buy it NOW. You won’t regret it!

On Grief and Friendship and Asking for What You Need.

My friend’s dad died last weekend. He had cancer. She and I were texting back and forth a few days after, about how to cope with it, about how to tell people. I found myself imparting the same advice that others gave to me when mom died, almost two years ago now. Enough time has passed that I can see with clarity the relationships and words of wisdom that helped me, and the ones that didn’t. It felt so healing and sacred to be able to offer that to someone else after all of the love and wisdom I have received. So I thought I’d share some of it with you today in honor of my friend who is burying her father today, and just beginning this journey of grief.

First of all, ask for what you need. It sounds simple, but it’s often the hardest part of grieving, or at least it was for me. I had been seeing my therapist for about three years before mom died, and she gave me this advice fairly early on. It took me a long time, even with my very best friends, to articulate what I needed, in part because I didn’t know what I needed, and in part because I was terrified of uttering those needs aloud. I think I was scared that by talking about it and asking for help, it meant somehow that I was giving up on mom, and giving up on myself. I would be admitting that we were not going to be okay, at least in the everyone’s healthy/no one’s dead or heartbroken kind of way. But there came a point, between all the hospital visits and emotional meltdowns, when I couldn’t hide the not-okayness anymore.

Usually, these conversations happened after we had just finished watching a really sad movie and were already crying, and then I’d be like “umm, yeah, so … things are really bad right now and I’m not just crying over the movie … I think my mom is dying, and umm, can you like, make sure I get out of bed and live my life after she dies, please? Can you make sure that I go places and do things and eat good food? Can you tell all of our friends for me that my mom died?”

I am profoundly blessed to have the kind of friends that wrapped me in their arms, cried with me, gave of themselves in ways beyond what I could even ask.

So remember that grief is the time to lean into your friendships, because the good ones can take it.

You will have friends that get squirmy when you start to talk about the hospital visits and test results or hospice care and funeral arrangements and grief. You will have friends that don’t call or write or show up for the wake. You will have friends that promise to be there and then just aren’t. You will have friends that want to be there to offer you comfort and support, but for some reason, it always seems that you wind up comforting them instead. No matter how hard I tried to be honest and gracious and patient and forgiving with those friends, some of them just couldn’t handle it. It was one of my worst fears, and it came true. And you know what I realized? It’s okay to let go of those relationships, or at least hold them much more loosely. Because there will be friends that never leave your side, friends that surprise you with their nearness, friendships that are forged through your loss, and those are the ones that will help you survive.

The morning that my mom died I called my husband and texted my three closest friends. I didn’t have to take on the daunting task of telling everyone I knew; they did it for me.

A couple of days later, my best friend called me on her way to the shopping mall. She was going to buy something to wear to the funeral service.

“Do you need anything? A dress to wear tomorrow? Tights? Waterproof mascara? Anything?” she asked me.

I didn’t need any of that stuff, I told her. But that gesture, small and practical as it was, filled another ineffable need : to know that I was thought of and cared for and loved.

And I didn’t wind up needing my husband and friends to drag me out of my bed or make me eat or make me live my life, but they did something equally important : they reminded me that it was okay not to be okay.

Instead of not being able to get out of bed in the morning or turning into a catatonic vegetable, I kicked into hyperdrive. After being so close to death’s presence, I suddenly had a tremendous energy for life. I poured myself into my art and my writing and my work, and for a while that was good. But what goes up must come down, and my friends were there to help me slow my pace and admit that I wasn’t okay.

Do the thing you feel strong enough to do, and we’ll help you with the rest,” they told me.

Almost two years later, I’m still learning to practice that profound vulnerability of asking for help, of admitting when I’m not strong or okay enough to handle things. Sometimes, all I feel strong enough to do is watch Harry Potter and eat my weight in ice cream. I feel way less pathetic when my husband and bffs are sitting there with me.

Grief comes in waves, usually prompted by the ebb and flow of life experiences. All of those firsts without the one you love. All of those moments when someone unwittingly makes a comment about cancer or death. Ride it out. Let it take you deep, and let it pull you to the surface again. Don’t fight it. Someday, you’ll find yourself on the shore. Someday, you’ll find yourself reaching in to help someone else out of the water.

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