This Is The Sign For Drowning, part 2

The roar in her ears is muffled now, the sounds of the shore distant and hollow. The water forces her down, her back slamming against the gritty bottom. Eyes clenched shut, the world around her is dark.  Her throat burns; her lungs scream for air.

Above her, the surface plays an elusive game of peekaboo as each new wave dangles the possibility of her mouth and nose breaking the barrier between water and sky.

The barrier between watery grave and sun-kissed life.

Panic wells in her chest. Her mind races.

This cannot be how it ends.

She will not succumb to these monstrous depths.

Forcing her eyes open, she gathers what little strength she has left.

She is determined.

The next wave slams her back into the ocean floor; she skids toward the shore on its current.

The monster doesn’t realize it’s helping her now.
A lull. She twists against the water, willing her feet to touch the bottom.

The next wave crashes and in the second it passes, the current sends her downward, toes brushing the sand.

She springs upward, breaking the surface, arms moving in familiar repetition, stroking the current beneath her.

She is exhausted, but she can see the shore.

With a few more strokes, she’s back in quieter waters.

She reaches with her toes…

…a few more inches.

There.

Lungs gasping at the pure air, she looks out at the horizon. The waves build and break around her.

With aching arms, she lifts her hands. Right hand fingertips to left palm, firm, steady.

This is the sign for standing.

The Fascination and Fear of Waves

Of all the elements of nature, water is my favorite. Maybe it’s because my name is Cherokee for “falling water” or maybe it’s just coincidence, but I’ve always been drawn to water. Rain, Creeks. Pools. Lakes. Oceans.  Even now, as I write this post, the sky roars with thunder and raindrops rush to the ground, calming my thoughts.

I was two or three years old the first time I went to the beach. My parents were chaperoning a singles retreat and brought me along. There are few things I remember about that trip—mostly just that I fed a flock of greedy seagulls the French fries from my Happy Meal and soaked up the attention and adoration of the group of twenty-somethings poolside. I don’t remember seeing the ocean for the first time or sticking my toes in the surf.

While I don’t remember that initial trip well, I can recall my second trip to the beach.
I was eleven. It was September—still balmy enough in South Carolina to enjoy being on the beach and in the water, but not oppressively hot like July and August. This was the trip during which I fell in love with the ocean. It’s vastness and mystery issued an invitation and claimed my heart. Since that trip, the beach has continuously beckoned me back, its pull a little stronger each time the gritty sand slides between my toes, the sticky salt air tickles my nose, the steady heartbeat of the waves echoes in my ears. When I’m standing on the edge of the ocean, a sense of calm washes over me. It’s a security blanket for my soul.

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As deeply as the ocean drew me in, it also terrified me. The sheer force of it repeatedly crashing against the shore. The unending vastness.

One day that week, my father and I were wading out into the waves. I was knee-deep in the surf and happy to be there. I didn’t trust the unpredictability of the waves I hadn’t yet learned to read. And I wasn’t all that trustful that my dad wouldn’t let me go under either. Eventually though, and with much apprehension, I managed to brave the looming waves and wade into waist deep water.

~*~
Keeping my eyes locked on the horizon line and the larger waves forming a little farther out, I was poised to run for the shore at the sight of any threat of going under. My dad was a few feet away in slightly deeper water when I felt it brush my leg. Panic rose in my chest as I glanced down at the creature circling my legs, its distinctive dorsal fin just inches below the water’s surface. It swam away just as my brain registered “run!” And run I did. I fought those waves, my feet sliding against the shifting sand beneath my feet as I moved as fast as I could toward the shore.

~*~

It was just a baby shark…maybe three feet long. But it was big enough to make me afraid of deeper waters. That was the last time I waded farther than thigh-deep in the ocean for more than a decade.

~*~

Earlier this year, during Spring Break, I found myself standing in the waves again, eyes locked on the horizon line. It was the end of March and the water was still quite chilled. A restlessness stirred in my soul, my heart felt like it was breaking into a thousand pieces, and salty tears glistened in the eyes hidden beneath my sunglasses. As I stood on the Carolina coast, two dear friends in two opposite directions were walking through very hard days. My heart ached to be with both of them, my mind hyper aware of the distance that separated us. And my own family had recently been slammed with a grim diagnosis. I was numb and carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders at the same time.

~*~

The waves gathered strength and crested all around me, beating themselves against my legs and stomach. My feet shifted in the sand, my muscles aching as they braced against the ocean’s continuous attempts to shove me under the water. Drowned out by the roar of the waves, I sang the same two lines over and over and over: “So I will call upon Your name/ And keep my eyes above the waves.” Over and over and over. I stood there until my legs, chilled to the bone, began to give way. I turned and stumbled back to the shore, where I continued staring at the horizon line.

~*~

For weeks, I’ve sat in drought-ridden northern Texas and thought of the ocean. I’ve written and re-written a dozen metaphors to parallel this particular incongruity.

And for the first time in a long time—maybe ever—I’m allowing myself to both feel and display the depth of my emotions. I’ve spent decades suppressing them, stuffing them down, terrified of what I might find if I wade out a little deeper—what startling creatures are lurking in the depths of my soul? Do I trust my Father enough to allow Him to lead me out farther—where the waves are less predictable and seem more likely to drown me? What will people think if I let these pockets of pain and weakness bob up to the surface? Can I keep my eyes fixed on the horizon of truth and not be thrown into a panic when something unexpected or unpleasant brushes up against me? Am I strong enough to withstand the repeated battering of the waves?

Fighting the waves is exhausting. When you’ve stood in the waves for a while and head back to shore, your legs feel shaky and your body feels heavier. No longer buoyed by the waves, exhaustion rushes in. Fighting emotion and vulnerability and honesty is also exhausting. But so is walking through it.

~*~

Raindrops fall softly on the parched grass. The sky is gray and dotted with heavy clouds. Sitting on the porch, feet propped on the table, my eyes are fixed on the horizon line. There are no ocean waves here, but the internal waves build and crest, battering my heart and mind. Some days my legs give way and I feel as though I am drowning, swept under by the weight of the water. I am exhausted. But tonight, I choose to let them carry me. Tomorrow is another day.

This Is The Sign For Drowning

DSC_1313The roar of it fills her ears, drowning out her thoughts. Over and over and over.

Before her, a calmer path opens as the crest languidly rolls toward her, promising reprieve.

A break. Infrequent and welcome.

It glides passed her, unassuming.

Another swells in the distance.

It obscures the horizon line and draws strength from its belly.

The spray stings her eyes, springing from the surface with innocent exuberance. It crashes against her thighs, threatening to knock her down.

She fights to maintain shaky balance against the force of it.

Determined, it returns again and again and again.

The next builds, rising faster and stronger than the last.

Teetering backwards, her feet grasp for solid ground. Her muscles tense, braced for the impact. It’s too strong.

Gritty sand digs into her kneecaps.

The water rushes over her head. The roar is muffled, still filling her ears.

Her eyes burn and her lungs scream for the surface.

Arms and legs flail.

Her fingers find themselves instinctively.

Fingertips to palm, pulling downward, swirling.

This is the sign for drowning.

Not the Way You Came

Standing at the rear of her car, by a bustling airport curb, we hugged tightly, silently. I’m terrible at saying goodbye. All the words bubble up in my chest, but get stuck in my throat. And really, there aren’t enough words. Stepping back, I reluctantly pulled my suitcase out of the trunk, flung my bag over my shoulder. Without making eye contact again, I turned toward the sidewalk and slowly walked away, breathing deeply with each step. Inside the airport, I paused for a moment to get my bearings, and then headed for the security line, fighting the lump that was forming in my throat and the tears that were pooling in my eyes.

IMG_1816My phone vibrated in my hand as I joined the line. I looked down. And saw the text: “You are not going back the same way you came…” The lump rose and the tears began to fall… and I heard His voice:

This is not the last time you’ll be here…you will be back.”

~*~

I’m not a crier.  From the time I stepped into the security line until about halfway to Atlanta, I bawled my eyes out. I was exhausted in every sense—physically, mentally, emotionally—from the past five days. I’d been fully present at Splendid, and suddenly I was alone with my thoughts. My perception of myself, of God, of the women He’d planted in my life through the internet had shifted in ways I couldn’t begin to comprehend. And so, I cried, and cried, and cried. (That poor man who had to sit beside me for two hours…)

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I don’t fly. Get on an airplane? 30,000 feet in the air? I don’t think so. And yet—I did. Twice in six days. And it was NO BIG DEAL. Piece of cake, actually. (Although—I’m already convinced that ATL will always be a form of hell on earth.) All that anxiety that made my heart flutter and my stomach drop for the six months leading up to Splendid? Gone—once I was sitting on the plane. Verdict? I don’t hate flying—I actually kind of love it. Who knew?

I don’t talk on the phone. Having spent five days extroverting almost 24/7, talking eyeball-to-eyeball, and being in the constant presence of people, I came home to an apartment that was too quiet. Almost immediately, I was scheduling phone calls and video conferences with friends from #the4500 and face-to-face meetings with local friends. Adjusting to normal life was hard.

~*~

The week and a half since Splendid has been crazy. Seriously. God dumped so much in my lap while I was in Texas that I honestly thought He’d let up a little once I got home. I was wrong. The things I heard people say in Texas were repeated by my friends and family at home. My co-teacher Christine was asking the same hard questions Anna, and Megan, and Taylor, and Kelli had asked me all weekend.

And while I left Splendid with some hints, but not full knowledge of what I was supposed to do, where I was supposed to go, and what I was supposed to be, I didn’t actually know until last week. Tuesday, to be exact.

Christine preached me a sermon all day Monday and most of Tuesday, which basically boiled down to this:

“If you’re really going to do this, now is the time. If God is telling you this is what you need to do, are you just giving lip service to it—or are you actually going to act on it? If you wait for the circumstances to be perfect, you won’t do it…you will over think it.”

And just like my Splendid sisters did, my dear friend Christine shot down every. single. excuse I threw at her.

So I made the decision to do what I’ve been too afraid to admit that I’m supposed to do in this season.

I decided that I was going to follow God’s lead, to let Him take the reins.

I jumped off the cliff.

~*~

My life is so boring.

Nothing exciting ever happens to me.

Adventure? Not for me.

I can’t even think these thoughts without chuckling to myself these days.

~*~

We sat in our darkened, quiet classroom at the end of the school day. Her questions and statements cut to the core of me.

“What is happening to my life?” I asked, incredulous.

“You’re getting a life….you’re living your life,” she answered.

~*~

I never wanted to go to Texas. Texas was always at the bottom of my “places I want to visit” list. God is funny.

Texas?

Yes, Texas.

In less than a month, I’ll be back in Texas.

Indefinitely.

Through the summer, at the very least.

Pursuing my passions, old and new.

Looking for a job.

Exploring graduate school options.

In less than a month, I have a million things to do—some that I have a plan to accomplish, some that I am freaking out about because I don’t have a plan to accomplish—and no foreseeable solutions.

In no particular order:

*Pack up my apartment and move it into storage

*Sell my car

*Decide what I absolutely have to take or ship to Texas for 3-6 months.

*Buy luggage

*Pick a departure date

*Find an affordable flight

*Update my resume

*FIND A JOB in TEXAS

*FIND A CAR in TEXAS (and the funds with which to buy said car)

*Ask for help in doing the things I cannot do on my own (this might prove to be the hardest one!)

*Stay calm, not freak out, and just breathe…

 

So, this must be what free-falling feels like.

 

I am not going back the same way I came.

Splendid & Lovely: Splendid Sunday

…Early Sunday morning, as I awoke from a short, but peaceful sleep, my thoughts immediately rested on the fact that it was the last day of Splendid. In a few short hours, we would say goodbye to one another and head back to our respective states and time zones. We would return to our virtual community, albeit with a few more real-life connections; the morning would be bittersweet.

 

This is the end of a chapter… I thought to myself.

“No, this is the very beginning of a chapter,” that still, small voice responded.

Oh.

Then… “You signed three times this weekend—a symbol of restoration for three lost years.”

 

In Anna’s workshop the day before, she had talked about the parable of the good soil and used a particular gardening technique (Back to Eden gardening) as an illustration. With this technique, dead/composted materials (wood chips, grass clippings, newspaper, etc) is used to cover the garden in preparation for planting. As she explained the process, she said, “Nothing is wasted.” All the “dead” materials are used for a purpose in preparing the soil.

As the Holy Spirit dropped this revelation that the three times I’d signed were directly related to the three years that had passed since I’d buried the dream I perceived as dead, I was astounded. And completely satisfied that the weekend was closing as it was. Again, I was content with the way God had moved; I could go home at peace with this outcome. I didn’t feel like I required anything more; I had a resolution to the question of whether the passion He’d placed in me was a figment of my imagination or if He really meant to plant it in my heart. It was more than enough. I held all of this close and didn’t even speak it to Anna and Kelli.

 

But He wasn’t finished.

 

Before we left for the restaurant, I texted Kelli to see where she was. She and a few others were leaving early to catch flights home. I dreaded telling her goodbye, but knew I couldn’t let her leave without doing so. She also needed to sing to me for Xamayta, who was unable to be at Splendid. When I found her she said matter-of-factly, “We’re not saying good-bye. We’re just not. We’re saying ‘soon.’” I told her we needed to make a video for Xamayta, so she pulled April M. into our huddle and handed Megan C. her phone. They put their arms around me and began to sing…”Jesus Loves Me.”

Those few moments broke all kinds of junk off me. It was one of the sweetest moments of the weekend, and I’ll treasure it in my heart forever. I hugged Kelli, said “Soon,” and hopped in the car with Rachel and Anna to drive down to the restaurant.

All weekend, I’d felt impressed to sit down with Tracy for an eyeball-to-eyeball chat. On Friday night, I’d grabbed her and told her I wanted to talk at some point during the weekend; she said okay and told me to find her sometime Saturday. Then Saturday came and I was a hot mess who didn’t want to talk to anyone. At breakfast Sunday morning, Tracy walked by and asked when I wanted to talk. I knew she was busy preparing for our last session, and I didn’t want to intrude on her time, so I kind of shrugged it off, and said, “Just at some point before we leave, whenever you have a minute.”

When we gathered for the last session, Taylor and I found seats together. I turned my phone’s voice memo recorder on—something I wish I’d thought to do earlier in the weekend—and settled in to listen as Jana began to speak.

She began by reading Philippians 4. When she got to verse 13, she read it, and then looked around the room: “…that’s easy to say—don’t you think? I mean, where’s Ticcoa? Just getting here…right? Look how much better it was?”

Yes.

After reading the scripture she gave us three questions to reflect on as we left our time together and return to our respective homes.

 

What is God asking you to do?

“What is God asking you to do? Because He’s told you—this weekend—that you have something to do. And you may not have a position in a church, but you have a place, and it may not be paid and it may not be on a platform, on a pedestal—but you have a place. He puts you where He needs you to be…some of us are like, ‘I can’t do this…’ or ‘I can’t do that…’”

 

Well, that was a no-brainer. He was asking me to pick up the dream I’d laid down.

 

Where is God asking you to go?

“Some of you are called to a mission field—and I don’t know where—or why—or when, but somebody—no a couple—you know you are and you’re like ‘ummm, I don’t wanna go.’”

This one was a little more abstract. It wasn’t until I had been home from Splendid for a week that I knew the answer to this one.

What is God asking you to be?

“…you have a place…we need to bring our very best, we need to bring whatever God told [us] this weekend, because we made space for it, we made time for it…”

Again, I didn’t yet have specifics in mind, but I knew I’d heard Him clearly say that it was time to reconsider pursuing employment and/or graduate school in an ASL related field.

Then Jana began to pray, and that’s when it all started to get real.

“…I ask for those of us who have a thought: ‘I could teach something…I could teach something next time…’ and we look at ourselves and go, ‘What? That just came out of my mouth?!’—that Lord, You give us the strength….”

As soon as the words “…I could teach something next time…” were out of her mouth, a clear picture popped into my mind: I was standing in a circle of women, teaching them how to engage in worship through sign language.

What?

There was that still, quiet voice again: That’s why you need to talk to Tracy

OH.

Okay.

I may have laughed under my breath, or gasped quietly. I don’t remember.

As we were all mingling, saying lingering good-byes, Tracy walked up to me and said, “Let’s trade numbers—and talk on the phone soon.”

Not wanting to press for a conversation then and there, I agreed, we took a picture and hugged. She walked away and immediately I was arguing with myself.

You need to talk to her. Now.

She’s busy—everyone wants to talk to her before she leaves.

You cannot sit on this. You need to talk to her now.

Fine.

Tracy walked by me a few minutes later and I grabbed her hand.

“I just need a minute—I need you eyeball-to-eyeball.”

“Okay,” she replied.

I led her to a quiet spot in the back of the restaurant and told her what had happened during Jana’s prayer, how the picture had popped into my mind, and how I’d known then why I needed to talk to her.

“I’m not asking you to do anything with this information, necessarily; I just needed you to know,” I explained. She told me that she would think and pray about it, and that we would talk soon. By acting on the clear instruction to talk to her, a door of potential opportunity was opened.

Again, I was totally content with how the weekend had gone—overjoyed, actually. I had gotten here, God had answered some questions I’d been holding close at heart, I’d met some of the heart-sisters I’d gotten to know online over the last year, I’d conquered some major fears and anxieties, and I was thrilled.

Splendid had, indeed, been splendid and lovely.

 

(If you’ve made it through the entire seven-part series, bless you. Thank you for joining me on the journey.)

 

Beyond A Sign: Splendid Saturday

Immediately after the group session ended Friday night, I got hit hard with all the shame gremlins, as Brené Brown refers to them. All the voices that said I shouldn’t be doing this, the voices that I was not qualified to do this, the voices that said I had no business doing this. I managed to stuff them down for the rest of the night. Then Saturday happened.

~*~

As the sun began to peek through the windows of our cabin, I groggily rolled over to find Anna looking at her phone, giggling. Eyes half-open, I looked at her like she’d lost her mind.

“Your Timehop post yesterday! This is hilarious!” she quietly gushed, trying not to awaken our roommates.

She read the post to me:

 

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My eyes opened wide as it hit me…the original post was from three years before, in April 2013—just 3 weeks after the conversation with my pastor happened. I’d gone to my five closest friends—Christine and four of my former professors at NGU—for advice on the matter. They all counseled me to keep pursuing the field of ASL. Then, by the time I reposted the picture from Timehop on Friday, I’d told my story five times in two days.

When this realization dawned on me—because it hadn’t when I wrote the words and posted the memory the day before—I started laughing, too.

“We’re way beyond ‘Is this a sign?’” Anna observed, as I buried my face in the pillow to muffle my incredulous laughter.

Um, yeah. I think so.

~*~

Our celebratory giggling and chatter eventually awakened Kristen and Carolyn; as they began to get up and get ready for the day, Anna and I filled Carolyn in on the whole story. Because it was still very early and I was in a state of awe, I don’t remember everything she said, but I do remember us talking about the power of story and how telling our own stories takes bravery, but is worthwhile because we never know who needs to hear our particular story.

Somewhere between this conversation and breakfast, all the voices of insecurity began to weasel their way back into my mind. My brain was overwhelmed, I was on extrovert-overload, and I desperately needed to process what had happened thus far. I also needed to make a decision about whether I would be signing during the worship session that morning and evening.

With less than an hour before the first session started, I walked up to the main building to grab breakfast. As I approached the porch where it was being served, I was overwhelmed by the thought of having to engage with the crowd; I was barely holding myself together and I could not make myself sit down for small talk. Kelli was standing at the edge of the porch, so I walked up to say good morning. She turned around and I told her that I was not in a good place and that I needed to find a quiet spot.

“Do you need to find a quiet spot alone, or do you want me to come?” she asked.

“I don’t know…no, I want you to come,” I replied.

We found a quiet spot and she allowed me to sit quietly, without pressure to talk. I turned on my Splendid playlist and let it play softly as we sat in easy silence. Eventually, as I usually do when given the space to gather my thoughts and speak slowly, I began to pour out what was on my heart. I told her that I didn’t want to sign anymore that day, that I wanted the night before to be enough. But I couldn’t get any peace out of that decision. So, I told Kelli I would sign that morning, but I was letting myself off the hook for the evening session; I would simply allow myself to soak it in. I found the song I was most familiar with on Amanda’s playlist.

As we sat there, I also shared with her one of the biggest obstacle I have in signing in front of people:

“I wish I could open my eyes while signing. I’ve never been able to do it. If I’m signing in front of a group, my eyes are closed.”

As we got ready to head back to the conference room for the morning session, she pulled something out of her purse and handed it to me. It was a charm for the bracelet she’d sent me a few months earlier. And it said BRAVE. “You needed the HOPE one a few months ago; now you need the BRAVE.”img_2043

I switched out the charms then and there.
We walked back to the conference room, I found Amanda and told her I’d join her for “Open Up The Heavens” and found a seat. When Amanda began the worship portion of the session, I again sneaked to the front row—if I were already there, I’d have no excuses. Tracy walked by as I sat there and stuck out her fist; I fist-bumped her back, thinking she had no idea what she’d started when she told Amanda to ask me to join her.

 

“Open Up the Heavens” began playing and I turned around to face the crowd. And it was even harder than the night before. I was hyper-aware of everyone in the room. My hands fumbled even more. The signs I knew in my sleep were suddenly gone. But you can’t really tell it in the video. I’d given Taylor my phone and asked her to video for me. And she did. (It’s on my Facebook page–I couldn’t post it here.)

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Throughout the rest of the day, I just felt heavy. I was exhausted; I was mentally, emotionally, and physically drained. I’d been playing the role of extrovert for three days and I was done. I needed quiet solitude. We were scheduled to attend three workshops throughout the morning and early afternoon. I’d been looking forward to each one (and will write about them soon), but by that time I had nothing—absolutely nothing left with which to engage. I managed to participate in the first one—Julie’s session on “The Healing Path”, but for the other two—Anna’s “Who Husbands Your Heart?” and Rachel H’s “Failure: It Isn’t the End”—all I could do was show up, plant my butt in the chair, and take a few notes. It wasn’t until Sunday afternoon that I was able to process and unpack the things I’d heard in each of those workshops.

After Julie’s and Anna’s sessions, we headed to lunch. I sat with Kelli and several others. I spoke very little, hurried through lunch, and headed for the door. I felt like I was going to crawl out of my skin if I didn’t find a place to be quiet and still, stat.  I tried sitting on out cabin porch overlooking the lake, walking out to the overlook, sitting in our cabin—all to no avail. Half an hour later, we were scheduled for Family Time to discuss the workshops we’d attended thus far. I met Anna, Megan, Taylor, and Melissa at our designated spot—a circle of chairs under the trees outside the conference room.

Megan read off our discussion prompts that we’d been using during each Family Time meeting:

  1. What was something new you heard today and how did you react to it?
  2. How is God asking you to dwell with Him?
  3. How is God breaking ground around you to draw you into dwelling with Him?

As is often the case when no one wants to be the first to answer questions like these, we all kind of looked at one another. I gave a half-sarcastic laugh and said I thought we all knew how these questions applied to me. Anna patted my knee and told me I didn’t have to talk this time. I told them that I was in an uncomfortable place and had been all day. I told them I was done signing, that I was not doing it during the evening session, and I was ready to quit. It was taking too much of my energy. I was done.

Megan looks me square in the eye and says, “So we’re just at the point of disobedience, now, are we?”

I stood up, dropped my notebook in my chair, and started to walk away, only half-jokingly. She’d struck a nerve and I fully intended to walk away for a few minutes. But I was too close to Anna. She reached out, grabbed the hem of my shirt and pulled me back: “You’re not going anywhere.”

I don’t know what else was said during our Family Time. In the few minutes before the next workshop, I followed Anna into the back room of the conference center to help her prepare a visual aid for her next workshop. “I’m so exhausted. I’m so overwhelmed. I’m so done with this. I need to write. I need to process. I need to get still. But I can’t and it’s frustrating me,” I told her. “It’s a growing process,” she said, “this seed inside you has been dormant for a long time and it’s beginning to bud again. That’s not easy. But you will be okay. Give yourself the space you need.”

I sat through the last workshop, taking notes, but not speaking at all. The last thing Rachel said was the phrase that hit me hardest: “Sometimes you have to forgive yourself for a past failure.” Bam. Yes, that.

I spent free time that afternoon trying yet again to get still and write the things that were swirling min my heart and mind—to no avail. When it was finally time for the evening session, I was as heavy and miserable as I’d been all day. I was ready to sit back and soak in the evening’s worship and teaching.

The chairs had been arranged in a huge circle around the perimeter of the room. Kelli, Taylor, and I found seats at the side of the room. I found Amanda and told her I was sitting this session out. And I did. I engaged in the worship portion and tried to find the stillness I’d been searching for all day.

At the end of the worship segment, we took a break so Amanda could pack all her stuff in her van, because she had to head home that night. When she left, I thought to myself “Okay. I made it. I’m off the hook. I don’t have to sign anymore.”

Because we no longer had sound equipment, we had to move our chairs into a tight, multi-row semi circle around the front of the room so we could hear Anna as she spoke during the teaching session. As we were waiting for everyone to reassemble, I was sitting in the third row. Tracy was in the front of the room; I glanced up and saw her beckoning me with her finger.

Oh, crap. What does she want?

I walked over to her.

She looked at me and said, “We’re going to sing “Jesus Love Me” later. Will you sign with us?

I looked away and said nothing. I wanted to say no.

“Just say: ‘I want to.’” she said.

I looked back at her. “I don’t want to, Tracy. But I will.”

After Anna and Mama Lynn spoke, Tracy got up and shared her heart for the women in the room. At one point she was calling out people and reviewing the obstacles they’d overcome in getting to the retreat, the areas in which they were growing. And in the midst of it, she made eye contact with me and said, “Ticcoa, you had to choose to be free.” Yes. The last seven months had been an ongoing choice to be free from fear and anxiety, depression and darkness. I had to choose the Light.

When she finished talking, she called me up to join her and all the women in the room joined hands. we began to sing “Jesus Loves Me’ and I lifted my hands to sign.

And I started to sign…with my eyes open. 

I didn’t even realize they were open until halfway through the song. I immediately closed them, but then opened them again. As we sang this simple, yet profound song acapella, I made eye contact with several of the women in the front row.

I’d done what I said I was not doing again that weekend.

And when we were finished singing, all the heaviness that had been all over me all day was gone.

This was enough. God had shown up and shown out. It was more than enough. He’d gone “beyond a sign” that I was supposed to pick this dream back up. I was not going back the same way I had come…

 

“Just breathe”: Splendid Friday

On Friday morning, shortly after I awoke, I was scrolling through my various social media apps. In my Timehop app, I came across a post that struck me as a little ironic, so I reposted it to Facebook:

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A little later, as Anna, Taylor, Kristen (one of my and Anna’s roommates), and I were driving to the restaurant for breakfast, Anna told us about another retreat she had been on. Part of that retreat‘s schedule included a day where the participants were sent out on the ranch to spend a day in solitude from sunrise to dusk. Taylor was driving, I was in the front seat, and Anna and Kristen were in the backseat. Anna talked about how she began to get anxious about finding her way back to the main buildings on the ranch once the sun started to set. She wondered if the path would look the same on the way back as it had on the way in. Then the Holy Spirit whispered to her, “You don’t have to go back that way. You don’t have to go back the way you came.”

As she spoke, I had been turned around in my seat so I could see her. When she said those words, it was like a rock dropped into my stomach—the weight of them heavy with significance. I glanced at Taylor and could tell she felt the same way. Anna kept talking, but I have no idea what she said after those words left her mouth.

See, the day before I left for Texas, when I was saying goodbye to my co-teacher Christine (who also happens to be my best friend—seriously—who gets to work with their BFF every day?), she said to me, “I could never do what you’re doing [going to spend the weekend with people you only know online]…you aren’t going to come back the same person that you are now.” So when Anna said almost those exact words in the car Friday morning, it was like God was making it very clear that He had a plan for the weekend; it seemed as though He was saying, “Hello—I see you.”

On the way back to the resort after breakfast, Anna encouraged me to tell Taylor and Kristen the story. So I did. (This would make the sixth time I’d spoken it.)

The retreat didn’t officially start until mid-afternoon on Friday. I spent most of the afternoon with Kelli before we headed to registration. The opening session was short, followed by an icebreaker activity where we were paired up with another woman and played the “two truths and one lie” game. (Kill me. I hate these things. Introvert, remember?) I was handed a card with the worship leader’s name on it. Amanda and I had just had a conversation a few minutes earlier, so I was struggling to come up with facts that she didn’t already know about me. We completed the activity and the session continued with everyone splitting into their family time small groups. Taylor and I were in the same group, along with Megan, and Anna was our leader. Melissa was also part of our group, but she wouldn’t be arriving until later. We gathered in a little circle in the corner of the room and Anna gave me the “look.”  “I should probably just tell her, shouldn’t I?” I asked, referring to Megan. If we were going to be family, we needed to catch her up.

So I told the story again. For the seventh time in 48 hours. I don’t remember Megan’s exact reaction, but it was similar to everyone else’s in that she felt like God was calling me back to this dream. I wasn’t entirely convinced. Yet.

After Family Time, we headed to dinner. Megan, Taylor, Anna and I sat together and chatted while we ate. As we were finishing, Amanda, the worship leader walked up to me.

The words that came out of her mouth were the ones that God used to smack me upside the head and say, “Do you believe me now? Do you believe that this is what you’re supposed to do now?”

“Tracy told me to ask you if you’d be willing to sign during worship this weekend?”

Excuse me? I did not come here this weekend to sign during worship. No intentions of this at all.

I’m sure my mouth dropped open. I know I stumbled over my words as I told her I’d have to think about it. (The first worship session was happening in 30 minutes.) She immediately assured me that I was under no pressure (maybe not from you, sister, but God? Yeah, He’s turning up the heat.) She said she’d send me her playlist so I could look it over, then went back to her table.  I could feel the heat rising in my face, my heart was pounding, my head was throbbing, my eyes were wide.

Anna was sitting across the table, beaming. “Breathe,” she instructed, “Just breathe

I started telling the three of them all the reasons why I couldn’t, why shouldn’t do this.

It’s been three years since I signed in front of people.

I’m too rusty.

Who am I to join in leading worship?

They shot down every single one of my excuses.

Anna finally looked at me and asked, “So is this a ‘hell yes’?”

No,” I replied. “No, it is not, yet. I need to know what songs she’s planning to use tonight.”

I walked over to Amanda’s table, crouched beside her chair and asked her what songs she was doing that night.

The first four she read off were the ones I knew the best on her playlist. Then she said, “And there’s one that’s not on the list that I’m planning to do at the end of the session—‘Good, Good Father.’”

OKAY, God—I hear you.

“Good, Good Father” has been my anthem since I heard it for the first time in January. I’d gone to an open mic night with a friend and heard it there. Then, later that night, Anna and I had talked on the phone and she had said those words to me—“he’s a good Father”—and I had just burst out laughing at the timing of them. A month later, I read Julie’s book, Stones of Remembrance—and read those words over and over and over throughout her story.

At that point, I knew what I was being asked to do, but I still wasn’t ready to say “yes.” I left Amanda’s table, made a beeline for Kelli’s and asked her to pray. Then I headed back to my table and told Taylor, Anna, and Megan that I was going to change clothes. Megan made a comment about my t-shirt, referencing the “Be the Light” quote that was scrawled across it—“see you’re supposed to be the light—your shirt says so!” There’s a story there too, but let’s just say that it was yet another slap in the face that said, “Hello—I’m talking to you!”

I got up from the table and headed for the door to go change clothes. And my family group got up too and followed me out the door. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me, knowing they were with me.  As we walked back to the cabin, my mind was spinning. I did not want to do this thing, but I knew I was supposed to. I was still thinking I could get out of it some way. Ha. The other three were talking, but I didn’t hear them—until I heard Anna say. “You’re glowing! Your smile is from ear to ear! I love this!”Honestly, I didn’t even know I was smiling. I was wrapped up in my thoughts; I thought my face was a display of the fear, insecurity, and struggle that was happening internally. Apparently not.

We got to the cabin and I changed clothes. By this time, we had about 20 minutes before the session started. I told the girls if I did anything, it would be “Good, Good Father” at the end of the session. As I stood looking at myself in the mirror, silently reminding myself to breathe, Anna walked up behind me and asked if I wanted her to massage my shoulders. I said yes and sat on the bed. Megan and Taylor had flopped down on the other bed. As I pulled “Good, Good Father” up on my phone, Anna started rubbing my shoulders. I closed my eyes and listened to the song, focusing on breathing. About halfway through the song, Anna stopped massaging my shoulders and placed one hand on top of my head. With her other hand, she started playing with my hair. I can’t describe those moments as anything other than holy. My spirit calmed and peace washed over me. I finally knew I was going to do this thing that I still didn’t want to do.

Our roommate Carolyn came in then and it was time to head to the conference room for the session. As we walked, Taylor and me ahead of Carolyn, Anna, and Megan, I could hear Anna telling Carolyn a little about what was happening. She shared with Carolyn about my word for 2016 being “unbound” and Carolyn said she would pray. Taylor put her arm around me as we approached the building and said, “This is a safe place. This is the place where you can do this.” I walked in, found Amanda and told her I was planning to join her at the end. She said she wouldn’t call me up, but told me to just come up.

Throughout that session, I sat on the floor in the back corner of the room, writing all the things that were pouring into my mind—things the Holy Spirit had spoken to me over the past few months, the reasons why I should and should not be doing this, just all the words. Tracy walked by me at one point and asked, “The floor? Are you comfy?” Yeah, I am—and I would probably fall out of a chair if I tried to sit in one right now, I thought. One thing I’ve learned about myself recently is that when my heart, mind, and spirit are swirling, I need to be sitting somewhere concrete and steady—like on the floor with a wall to support me.

The session began to close, and I quietly made my way to the front row. My heart was pounding. Amanda went to the keyboard and I stood up, turning to face the crowd. She started playing and singing; I closed my eyes and started signing.

And it was so hard. I kept fumbling (though no one probably noticed), and my hands felt awkward and uncooperative. But I did it. I had done what I had been asked to do…

Only the Beginning: Splendid Thursday

Thursday morning, we left Anna’s house with Rachel, another #the4500 member, and began our 4-hour drive to the retreat location. (For the record, these two are excellent road trip partners.) Halfway there, we met up with yet another #the4500 member, Taylor, and Anna jumped in her car for the rest of the drive. As we got back on the road, I began to tell Rachel my story—for the fourth time in less than 24 hours.

As we drove to the resort, I wondered when I would begin to get nervous about meeting all these faces I knew only online in real life. Because, really—who does that? But it never came. Instead, I was super excited. One person I anticipated meeting was Kelli. Kelli and I had become fast friends over the last few months. As of February, she wasn’t going to be at Splendid—and we were both so disappointed. Then, on the Monday before I left for Splendid, she texted me and said she was coming. Elated doesn’t even begin to cover how I felt upon receiving this news.

Once we arrived at the resort and unloaded the car, we began to encounter some of the girls who were already there. It was both weird and familiar to walk up to someone, hug them, and start talking. Because we’ve all spent the past year getting to know one another through the FB group, texts, and phone calls, we skipped over all the typical get-to-know-you small talk (an introvert’s dream!) and got right down to the real stuff.

At one point, I was walking through the resort to the office when I saw someone walking down the hill. I couldn’t quite make out who it was…until she started yelling my name: “Ticcoa! Is that Ticcoa?!?” And then I knew—it was Mama Lynn. We got within arm’s reach and hugged tightly. It was like greeting someone I’d known all my life. And this happened over, and over, and over—with Julie, and Tracy (“you made it, T!” she said to me), and Jana, and the two Aprils, and so many others.

IMG_1681Kelli was arriving in time for dinner, and as we drove down the “mountain” hill to the restaurant, my heart was filled with anticipation. When I walked through the door, my eyes immediately searched the room for this heart-sister, and when they fell on her, I made a beeline. Hugging her for the first time will always be a memory I treasure in my heart. We stood with arms around each other for a long time, until she whispered, “You see I’m being quiet.” For someone who usually has all the words, she was without them; I didn’t have very many of my own either. For months, we’d held onto the hope that we’d meet soon; “soon” ended up being a lot sooner than we’d anticipated.

When we got back to the resort after dinner, I followed Kelli to her cabin and proceeded to tell her the story I’d been telling others—the one that I’d promised her I’d tell her in person some day. Thus, this was the fifth telling of the story. (Numbers are important here, I promise!)

Again, at this point, so many wonderful things had taken place—just the very fact that I was present with these women was enough—that I was content with the weekend. Little did I know that it the “fun” was only just beginning…

Free to Fly: Pre-Splendid Wednesday

I got on a plane for the first time last week. To fly to Texas. To spend the weekend with 64 women—62 of whom I’d never met in person, but had only interacted with in #the4500 Facebook group. (I know, I know—internet strangers and all that jazz. Good news: I’m still alive. No axe murderers were present. Calm down.)

I’d been registered for Splendid in the Hills since the day it went live in the Facebook group. I’d already felt drawn toward Texas since becoming more engaged in the group, and when Tracy (the founder of The Splendid Retreat) posted the announcement for the 2nd retreat, I knew I was supposed to be there. While I knew that I was supposed to attend, without doubt, six months is a long time to wrestle with the anxiety of leaping so far outside your comfort zone. By the time the retreat was a month away, life was crazy and hard and all I was hoping for was to physically make it to Splendid. My expectations for anything more—connections, growth, opportunities to pour into others—were all but gone. I was exhausted mentally, emotionally and I needed to just be still. My only goal was to get there. (I can’t do anything but laugh at this notion from where I sit now.)

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Two Christmases ago, a friend gave me a hand-painted sign with the quote “What if I fall? Oh, but my darling, what if you fly?” For a long time, because I was mired in such a dark place, that sign mocked me; it’s beginning to make a lot more sense now. Until the moment I sat in the airplane seat last that Wednesday, I was a bundle of nerves about all the unknowns of this trip. I was so afraid I would hate flying; I don’t hate it—in fact, I think I might love it.

 

 

Anna picked me up from the airport on and we headed out for a late lunch/early dinner at Torchy’s Tacos. She watched the clock as we ate and shared stories. We finished our meal and she ushered me out the door and into the car. A few minutes later, we pulled into a parking lot; it began to look familiar from Facebook pictures. Then I saw the sign: Think Differently.

“Wait. What…?”

I looked at Anna; she was grinning ear to ear.

“Are you surprised?” she asked.

Um, obviously.

The week before, she’d told me to bring my Bob Hamp books with me, so “we can discuss them…I’m doing something with them at the retreat.” So I threw them in my already-stuffed luggage and didn’t think anything of her request.

~*~

I’d been reading, listening to, and watching Bob’s teachings since Anna and I first connected via phone in September 2015. His explanations of Kingdom life and freedom in finding your true God-breathed identity had broken open the shut-down parts of my heart, mind, and spirit over those months. In fact, as I began to dig my way out of the deep depression I’d been in, his “Freedom from Depression” and “Hearing God” podcasts had played an important role in my recovery. Anna and I had had many conversations about these areas, as well. Back in January, after listening to Bob’s ‘A Kingdom Parable” (the acrobat story for those who are  familiar with it), I was overcome by the end of the message.

Once I was able to pick myself up off the floor (because I was literally face down on the floor), I texted Anna, saying, “Today I was listening to the Foundations of Freedom podcasts while cleaning. And Bob started telling the acrobat story. I was only half-listening…until he got to the end. Keep in mind that I had just posted [in the FB group] about ‘unbound’ being my word for 2016…suddenly I’m hearing these words from Bob…

“…your Dad is so glad you’re home…whatever’s been asked of you, whatever you’re called to do, isn’t so that you can perform so an angry, rigid dad would be happy with you, finally. He’s saying this: ‘Hey, come discover who I made you to be. Put your hand to it. Stand up and speak it, do it. The things that are in your heart to do, the things that make the fire leap up in your chest—don’t shy away from them. Somebody once told you that it’s not true about you, but something inside of you knows it is. Freedom isn’t where we finally stop the bad stuff…freedom is when you can become the person you’re created and redeemed to be. All of those other things are just obstacles.”

…the thing that sent me into my depression two years ago was my pastor telling me I wasn’t supposed to pursue [ASL]. I all but stopped signing; buried that dream, that piece of my identity. It has been BOUND. And it is one of the things I feel [the Holy Spirit] speaking “unbound” over. And then I heard His small, quiet voice say, “I am releasing you.‘”

~*~

“I got here early so you’d have time to pull yourself together. I knew your introverted heart would need to calm down.”

Be still my introverted heart. The extrovert sees and is intentional in caring for the introvert’s state of mind. (Melted my heart, for sure. THIS is how to surprise an introvert.)

“Are you ready?”

“Sure.”

We entered the lobby, sat on the couch (in the room I’d spent months watching Bob teach in via Periscope for months), and waited for our appointment. (I have an appointment with Bob Hamp…seriously?)

Several minutes later, he entered the lobby; we greeted one another and then he ushered us to his office. After sharing with him how Anna and I had met, she says, “Tell him your story.”

The story I had just told her in the restaurant, the story I’ve told recently on my blog, the story she had me tell eight more times over the next five days.

So I did.

And without even realizing it, I started speaking the lies that I’d held to be true over the past few years—particularly that my role in bringing ASL to NGU was no big deal. At one point I said, “For a long time I haven’t even been able to give myself credit for having been such an important part of the process of starting the program…I really haven’t been able to own it because I just felt like anyone could’ve done it.” Anna and Bob glanced at one another, and then Anna rolled her eyes at me and replied, “Yeah, anybody could’ve done it.” Bob followed with the statement, “So you’ve done all these big things that you didn’t think you could do…”

Well, yes.

That was the moment I began to own that it was a bigger deal than I’d let myself believe. God had equipped me to carry it out and He had brought it to fruition. Throughout our conversation, Bob said a few other things that struck a chord in my spirit, the weight of which wouldn’t be fully revealed until later in the week.

We left Think Differently and met Anna’s sister, Celia, for a quick chat—where Anna managed to squeeze a very abbreviated version of my story in. As she finished, Celia looked at me and said, “You’re a powerful woman…a world-changer…dream big.”

Me? A powerful woman? A world-changer? Dreaming big? I think you’ve got the wrong person, sister. That’s not me.

I’d barely been on the ground in Texas for 3 hours and already the weekend had been phenomenal.

But it was only the very beginning.

The Darkened Arena: The Burial of a Dream

(continued from “I Could Do That”: The Beginning of A Dream)

During the three-and-a-half years after the ASL program began at NGU, I audited ASL 1, 2, and 3 at my alma mater, building my vocabulary and becoming more comfortable with facial grammar and the structural components of ASL. Through countless conversations with the instructors, I eventually concluded that I wanted to get serious about pursuing a graduate degree in teaching ASL. As you might imagine, that’s not an easy degree to come by. Acceptance of ASL as a valid, stand-alone language is still not widespread. (Don’t even get me started on that soapbox.) There are a handful of related programs across the country, but the ultimate one is Gallaudet University’s M.A.T. in Sign Language.

Gallaudet University (Gally, as it is affectionately known), located in Washington, D.C., is “the world’s only university designed to be barrier-free for deaf and hard-of-hearing students”—thereby making it a truly immersive environment for Deaf culture. It is the Mecca of education in the DEAF-World. And it became my goal to study there.

But I was so scared to act on that goal. Entering into any new culture, learning any new, non-native language is uncomfortable; for my sheltered, introverted heart, it was terrifying. Many conversations with my mentors and former professors took place before I was remotely ready to move forward.

11109_651171316406_1886242799_nFinally, in the spring of 2013, I felt that it was time. I poured over the Gally U graduate school website, requested application materials, and decided to visit the program over the summer. I also enrolled in a 2-week ASL immersion course in order to gauge the pace and atmosphere of classes at Gally, which was to take place in July. I arranged to stay with a family friend in Annapolis and commute into D.C. for classes each day.

In April 2013, as I prepared to begin this journey, I approached my pastor for prayer regarding wisdom, provision, and direction at the end of a church service. He prayed for those things; then when the service ended, he had a brief conversation with me. I was poised to follow what I understood as God’s calling to immersion learning and graduate school at Gallaudet. I was ready, I was willing, I was determined. I had prayed about it, I had researched it, I had applied for it, I had interviewed for it, and I had enrolled.  I was excited about it.

And then one conversation in a seemingly safe place brought it all crashing down. The words came like knives:  “This is not what you’re supposed to do. If you go down this path, you will be hurt. ” My heart was crushed. Shattered. Grieving. I don’t think I even responded to him—if I did, I don’t remember. For hours that afternoon, I drove aimlessly, numb and aching. I finally went home that evening and cried my eyes out—deep, gut-wrenching sobs that made my muscles hurt.  

For a few weeks, I struggled with knowing whether these words were true. Had I heard the Holy Spirit wrong? Were all the events of the last few years a tease? Did I really hold this passion for ASL and the Deaf community for nothing? Those closest to me, the people who had been alongside me as I explored this passion all counseled me that I was supposed to pursue this path. I prayed, and prayed and prayed. But my confidence in my ability to hear what God was speaking to me had been skewed.

Ultimately, I decided that I would follow through with my plans to visit Gallaudet and take the immersion class in July. Two weeks before the trip, I completed a video interview and assessment with the ASL department chair to make sure my skill level was appropriate for the course I’d chosen. (It was.) On the night before I was scheduled to leave for Annapolis, I picked up my rental car.

And I had a panic attack on the way home, though I didn’t have a name for it then. Every possible fear and anxious thought flooded my mind. What if my pastor was right? What if this was the worst decision I would ever make? What if something unimaginable happened to me?

Within two hours of picking up the rental car, I decided I was not going.

The next morning, I returned my rental car. I emailed the friend I was supposed to stay with and said, “I’m not coming.”

And I did not go.

~*~

The arena is darkened, devoid of light. The spectators have left; the show is over for them. In the middle of the arena floor, crumpled into a bruised and broken heap, lays the contender. For her, the battle has only just begun. The opponents were brutal—Fear, Anxiety, Depression, Lies, Regret, Numbness—they have all done their part in taking her down. Now, they’ve retreated to the edges of the arena, lurking in the shadows, taunting their victim with whispers.

“You’ve made a huge mistake.”

“You have nothing to offer.”

“Too many bad things would have happened to you.”

“You’re invisible; no one sees you.”

“No one values your passion.”

“Wasted—that’s all that opportunity was.”

“Your dreams are worthless.”

“You missed your chance. You blew it.”

“I’m done with you.”

Whimpering silently, the contender closes her eyes, desperately trying to keep the voices out of her head. But they are unwavering, always there. The ache in the pit of her stomach burns, threatening to tear her in half. As the pain grows, spreading through her limbs, from fingertips to toenails, she loses consciousness and slips into the darkness.

~*~

The decision not to go to Gallaudet that summer because I chose to hear the lies over the truth damaged my heart and mind in ways I never imagined it would. I shut down; I became a shell of myself. I lost my joy, my motivation, my belief that Jesus could speak to me. I shut my mentor-friends out because I couldn’t bear the thought of disappointing them. I put the mask of “everything’s okay” on every day and went through the motions of my life, but those closest to me—particularly my mom, my sister, and my best friend and co-teacher, Christine— knew I was struggling. Struggling to stay afloat; struggling to care; struggling to believe in God’s goodness; struggling to believe I was enough in every area—as a daughter, a sister, a friend, a teacher, etc. My self-worth plummeted. I stopped signing except to teach my students a few signs here and there. I laid my dream down and buried it under the premise that it was never supposed to be mine to begin with. If I could have stayed in bed twenty-four hours of every day for the remainder of 2013 and all of 2014, I would have. I was depressed, ashamed, and broken. It was the darkest season I have ever known—and hope to never know again.

In October of 2014, I remember going to bed one night, whispering, “If this is all You’ve got for me, I don’t want to wake up.”  1460279_693242101216_124019780_n

Guess what?

He wasn’t done with me.

In March of 2015, I was rejected from Jen Hatmaker’s launch team and stumbled into a Facebook group of women that was taking it upon themselves to “go rogue” and launch her book anyway…which eventually landed me at The Splendid Retreat in Texas last week…