The Risk of Becoming Real and Why It Is a Worthwhile Process

There is a certain risk involved in deconstructing one’s faith to rebuild it in a new and stronger way. You risk being misunderstood, accused of heresy, and otherwise shunned. You risk hurting the feelings of those closely associated to your own story. Committing to a deep-dive expedition of sorting through the roots of your belief system guarantees discomfort and some degree of conflict. As the beloved, classic children’s book, The Velveteen Rabbit, reflects, becoming real is risky, harrowing, and often lonely, yet enormously rewarding:

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”



 

Growing up in a relatively unstable and dysfunctional home required me to learn some unhealthy coping and survival skills. Sure, things looked okay on the outside because we learned to mask the uglier facets, but we were not a happy family. There were moments, of course, especially in my younger years when we managed to complete a family activity in relative peace. Yet, for as long as I can remember, there was an underlying current of tension, an expectation that the lid would blow at any moment without warning—and it grew increasingly heavier as the years passed. It wasn’t until my teenage years, when my sister and I referred to our father as “the man who lives in our house” (because he was physically present, but emotionally distant) that I began to realize  this wasn’t normal.

Looking back, I can see how many of my behaviors and thought patterns developed as coping mechanisms and self-preservation tactics.  Only recently have I learned that some of the things I experienced actually fall under the umbrella of trauma—including psychological, emotional, and spiritual abuse.

I know those are weighty admissions.

Believe me when I say I’m aware of their implications. But I’m tired of minimizing my experience to make others look better; I’m tired of remaining silent to keep the peace. It wasn’t my responsibility to do so as a child…but I did. As I work on healing and re-parenting my younger self, the best gift I can give her is to let her have her voice back.

In the past ten months, I’ve begun to realize just how much growing up not only in evangelical Christianity itself, but also during the height of the evangelical purity culture movement has informed my views of myself, the world, and the nature of God. While seeking growth and a deeper understanding of who I am, I hold a tangled ball of readily-accepted lies, wounds, and assumptions that formed from early childhood forward.

Not everything I learned was bad—and I believe most (emphasis on most) people who were responsible for teaching and guiding me did not have motives to harm. Many of them were merely passing on the tradition of the faith culture they themselves were fed. The problem, though, is that going against the grain or questioning the authority of those in leadership roles is highly discouraged and, therefore, taboo.

Well, I’m questioning.

And it isn’t a tidy little Q&A panel with answers handed out in neatly packaged boxes. No, this feels like a throw-everything-you-know-in-a-dumpster-douse-with-gasoline-light-a-match-and-toss-it-in season. You know how people describe working through issues as peeling the layers of an onion? This feels more like hacking the onion to death and hoping for the best.

Even in nature, death precedes growth—seeds must die before trees grow; seasons must rotate through fall and winter before the bounty of spring and summer.  Pearls begin as an irritant inside an oyster’s shell. The process of change and discomfort is necessary for transformation and beauty to be birthed. It’s a healthy, natural process to wrestle through the beliefs, patterns, and circumstances that have irritated the human soul to find the core of one’s true identity without merely accepting Sunday School answers at face value.

I hope that my readers—both those who have known me my whole life and those who have known me only briefly in person/this virtual space can respect and honor my perspectives. We certainly don’t have to agree in order to honor one another’s stories. You don’t get to sit in the cheap seats and tell me I’m doing it wrong “if you aren’t in the arena getting your [butt] kicked” too, as Brené Brown says. Because I process so much of my inner life through writing and because a lot (though not all) of that happens on this platform, I need to make this clear: I’m not seeking to cast blame on any particular individuals but rather to share MY experiences from MY perspective as well as the culminating effects of those things. I’ve spent too much of my life suppressing my own emotions, thoughts, and beliefs because I worried about what everyone else would think.

Brené also says, “You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.”

I’ve stood outside my story all my life.

Now, I’m stepping inside and owning it.

Deconstructing Faith

Deconstructing Faith

Have you ever suddenly found yourself deconstructing your faith and questioning your beliefs about almost everything? Sifting through the fundamentals by which you were raised? Picking apart the rote rituals and rules of a particular denomination? Stripping your internal structures to the bare bones so that you might begin to rebuild a sturdier, stronger structure in its place?

For lack of a better term, I’m referring to it as an awakening.

An awakening to different perspectives, broader definitions, and deeper understanding. An awakening that demands exploration, open-mindedness, and honesty. An awakening that requires examination of past wounds, current traps, and future possibilities–both welcome and unwelcome. An awakening that brings great healing, painful disappointments, and ultimate freedom.

It’s not a pretty or pleasant process; yet, it is a natural and necessary process for deep-rooted growth. And it’s where I find myself now.

I wrote this poem (a term loosely employed) as a metaphor for the complex emotions I have felt during this journey.  So, please enjoy this piece as I struggle through some big, uncomfortable questions about life, faith, God, religion, church, and the dark side of purity culture. *begin sarcasm font*This is so much fun.*end sarcasm font*

Bait and Switch

I learned to swim in these waters.
They felt safe back then,
drifting along with the current,
in an ocean with no end.

The warnings were clear:
keep inside the tight boundaries
lest my heart and mind
should veer.

I blindly obeyed–
mostly for fear
of not checking the boxes;
thus, I drank the kool-aid.

Many years later, I coasted the sea
in waters much further, much further away
where I begin to just think–maybe there’s a different,
a more freedom-filled way.

I swam deeper still into my new home,
though it wasn’t all easy
I had more room to explore and  to roam.

Until one day, I saw
with a new pair of eyes
what I believed
was built on man’s tries.

Out of nowhere, it came–
the fog lifted high;
blindsided by pain
I wanted to cry.

I’ve been robbed?
I’ve been cheated?
I’ve been lied to?
It’s true.

Now, I realize
what’s been stolen
is my identity.

Numb to the point
buried deep in my flesh,
my heart and my  mind
have agreed to disjoint.

Not feeling is easier
than facing the facts.
Yet now that I know,
I can’t sit back and not act.

The sharp taste of steel-
of blood and of shame
to the brim, my mouth fills
as my soul is inflamed.

I’ve been robbed.
I’ve been cheated.
I’ve been lied to.
It’s true.

Far above me they sat
in their suits and their ties
and threw out the sinkers
filled with hopeless white lies.

I swallowed the bait
of a pure, snow white life
that would end at the altar,
making me the good wife.

Now, twenty years on-God, that stings just to say,
I have kept my end of the bargain
Only to find they were blindly leading my heart away,
with babbling, fear-based jargon.

The ring on my finger,
the noose that would bind me.
The pledge penned by my hand,
the soul-wound that would linger.

So many years wasted,
struggling,
caught on the line.

I followed the rules,
and look where it got me–
floundering–
broken and alone.

Still caught on the line,
now tasked with a chore
of untangling myself
to find my true core.

The waters I swam in
no longer feel safe.
Even if I break free,
will the scars always chafe?

These are the questions
my soul entertains
as, slowly, I feel
the hook’s grip
start to loosen;

Movie Theater Therapy: A Reflection and Review of the New Little Women Movie

courtesy IMDB

I saw the new Little Women movie last weekend. As a lifelong reader and writer who holds an English degree and adores the texts of 19th century American writers, I’m always wary of films based on books, but new versions of the classics take it to a whole new level of skepticism.

Here’s my short review: For a modern re-telling it was well done. No retelling of a classic will ever be perfect, especially for literary purists. Even the 1994 version with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon (which I love!) is set in the original period in which the book was written. This one wasn’t and I’m glad. Shakespeare’s works are woven into modern films and it was long past time that this one had a turn to connect with a new generation.

I missed the opening weekend of this film because I wasn’t feeling well. A couple weeks later, I searched for a local showing to no avail. It was nowhere to be found and internet searches revealed a host of less-than-generous reviews. My friend Madlin found it at a local discount theater and we jumped at the chance to see it in theaters, accompanied by her 10-year-old daughter. I’m sure the movie was pulled from theaters early because it’s still a very sweet story—something that is drowned out in our quest for action-packed, racy dramas even in young adult genres. Our culture wants salacious story lines and this one didn’t deliver that–thankfully. It held true to the classic themes you expect from the original novel. I loved it and I think it’s worth seeing (especially if you have tweens/teens).

Now, a deeper dive into my thoughts on the movie.

Louisa May Alcott’s timeless novel has been a favorite since I first read a condensed version, gifted to me by a family friend, around age 10. In college, it was a pivotal text in my favorite upper-level literature class, Dr. Thompson’s New England Writers. One of my favorite memories from the class was the day we formed a circle with our desks and discussed which character resonated most with ourselves. I’ll never forget the impassioned argument between two classmates when he spoiled a climactic plot point she didn’t know about yet. (Hint: it had to do with Beth.) She literally threw her book at him. It was hilarious.

I had the amazing opportunity of visiting the Alcott home where Louisa penned the novel loosely based on her life with her sisters in Concord, MA in August 2009. Last year, while on the Epic Book Tour, we found ourselves with a few free days while in the northeastern part of the country and I lobbied fast and hard to take Anna on a brief literary tour of the sites that enthralled me nearly a decade ago. Orchard House was at the top of our itinerary. I couldn’t wait to share the magic of the historic house with Anna. There’s just something about walking the halls of literary greats that makes my heart beat a little faster and my eyes light up a little brighter.

So, when I heard a new film version was to be released this year, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Little Women’s publication, I knew I was going to see it—regardless of whether I sat through it with squinted eyes and clenched teeth, worried it wouldn’t live up to the original work.

[Warning: spoilers ahead. If you’ve read the book, you already know the basic spoilers, but I’ll also give away specific scenes from this film. Proceed at your own risk.)

Walking into the theater, I braced myself to hate it. I hoped to walk away with at least one positive thread that would redeem whatever mess Hollywood made of my beloved characters.

I walked out with a tear-stained face, drenched sleeves, and a full yet aching heart.

My reaction, due in part to the experiences I brought to the viewing (known in literary theory as Reader Response), took me totally off guard.

Though I’ve watched the 1994 movie dozens of times since college and know the major plot points by heart, the last time I read the novel was in Dr. Thompson’s class ten years ago. Back then, I identified mostly with Meg’s character; she too was the oldest of four siblings, quiet and sweet, and her dreams were those expected of young women of the time—nothing brash or lofty. On the other hand, I related to Jo only in that she was a voracious reader and writer. That was where our similarities stopped—back then.

Because this new interpretation of the book is set in modern time, I saw Jo in a new light. With each scene, I realized how much Jo’s character resonated with me. I also realized just how much I’ve changed since I read Little Women in college. This dawning knowledge had me a little emotional even before the news of Beth’s illness was revealed in the movie.

In the book, Beth is struck by scarlet fever after visiting an immigrant family but in this version, she’s diagnosed with cancer. This is where my heart first started constricting and my breath shallower. Of course; why would they not give Beth cancer?

Jo is Beth’s closest sister in both the book and the film. In the movie, Jo returns home for the holidays after Beth’s diagnosis; Beth’s health has obviously deteriorated. The two sisters lie in bed together, talking. Jo apologizes for not visiting more often and Beth dissuades her guilt with the acknowledgement that Jo is pursuing her dreams in New York. At one point, Jo tells Beth, “You’re my person.” Meg has John; Amy has Laurie; Jo has Beth.

This is where I lost it completely. Just the day before I saw the movie, I thought to myself, “What happens when you lose your person? The one to whom you text your random thoughts? The one you test your questions about life with? The one you explore your identity with? The one who knows you best and calls you on your crap? The one whose memories you share the longest? The one you sold tadpoles from your swimming pool with? The one who was always up for exploration and random road trips to cheesy roadside attractions? The one who threw a funeral-themed graduation party when you were depressed by the end of your college years? What happens when that person is gone, and you lose the reflection of yourself through their eyes? What happens when you’re left flailing in their absence?

(Even now, I’m tying these words through tear-filled eyes.)

A few weeks ago, Anna returned from one of Bob Hamp’s training sessions and we were talking about attachment and how you develop your perception of yourself as a young child through the eyes of those closest to you. Ideally, this attachment comes through your parents, particularly the mother. I realized as we talked that my deepest perceptions of myself and my identity were tied closely with the way my sister saw me and shaped me. She probably knew I was more like Jo long before I realized it.

During Jo and Beth’s conversation in the same scene, Beth tells Jo she wants to see the ocean. The next scene shows Jo and Beth sitting on the sandy shore, gazing at the expanse of waves before them. Beth tells Jo to live her life for both of them, to “do all the things.” It is their last conversation; the next scene is that of Beth’s funeral.

By now, I was literally covering my mouth to keep the sobs from escaping. My head was pounding from the sheer force of keeping the emotion from erupting. I could barely see through the tears. My heart felt like it was being shattered into pieces all over again.

Madlin realized what was happening and told her daughter, who was sitting between us, to switch seats. She moved over and grabbed my hand as I sobbed through the next few scenes.

In February 2016, I flew to S.C. to spend a couple of weeks with Jess before the busy season of launching Anna’s book and the book tour ramped up. I flew into Greenville and then drove to the coast where Jess was doing treatments.

That weekend, Mom and my brother drove back to Greenville to take care of a few things and left Jess and I at the hotel. I was nervous because Jess’ health was not good and she required some assistance with her care. Namely, she had a port that had to be flushed each night and she couldn’t do it by herself (though she did try, stubborn sasshole that she was). Now, I’m not a fan of needles, but I was determined to do what I needed to do. And I did, though it was not without a lot of anxiety, a few ridiculous errors (there’s really no telling how much saline solution I shot onto the ceiling from the syringe trying to get the air bubbles out), a little humor, and a few frantic texts to #the4500 when I could not get the line flushed after many attempts.

February 2017

But the moment I remember most from that weekend is sitting on the balcony overlooking the ocean. Jess longed to be on the beach with her toes in the sand, but she was too weak to get there so we settled for the balcony. We sat in the sun, talking about how my life had changed. She offered her best fashion and makeup advice to turn me from a “tired teacher to a professional business woman” for the book tour. I hinted at my misgivings about even going on the book tour, afraid to be even further away if something were to happen, wondering if I should just not go. She was quick to shoot that notion down. She told me in no uncertain terms that I could not pass up this opportunity to travel the country like we’d always dreamed of doing.

She told me I was doing what I was supposed to be doing and I was where I was supposed to be. Essentially, she told me to go do all the things she couldn’t.

So I went. A week later, we were back in Greenville. The night before my early morning flight back to Texas, I went to tell her goodbye. We talked for a few minutes, but it was late, and she was tired. As I left her room, I leaned against the doorjamb and said, “Bye, Little Buddy. I love you.” “Love you, too,” she returned quietly.

“…the strong sister and the feeble one, always together, as if they felt instinctively that a long separation was not far away. They did feel it, yet neither spoke of it; for often between ourselves and those nearest and dearest to us there exists a reserve which is very hard to overcome.”

(Louisa May Alcott, Little Women p. 340)

As I closed the door, I felt a sense of finality. I wouldn’t realize until later that I knew in my spirit that this was the last time I would see her. It was February 19th.  Eight weeks later, almost to the day, she was gone.

Grief is such a complex process.  I probably should’ve realized that I was setting myself up for all the feelings by seeing this movie, but it truly blindsided me because of the modern setting.

One of the last scenes in the movie shows and angry Jo running, day after day, attempting to burn the negative energy of the grief that consumes her. At one point, Marmee runs up beside her and stops her.

Jo bursts, “How am I supposed to live like this? How long will it feel like this?”

Marmee replies, “Beth wanted you to do all the things. And that means you must feel all the feelings, too.”

For months after Jess died, I tried to suppress the emotions. The book tour made it easy to avoid confronting my emotions because it kept me busy and distracted—something I’m eternally grateful for. Without that distraction, I would’ve sunk deep into a hole I’m not sure I would’ve been able to climb out of. But then after the book tour ended, I slid down a slippery slope of avoidance and anger. I questioned God and every belief I’d ever held about Him. After months of this, I found myself enrolled in a three-part personal development program (Discovery) that would ultimately lead to a great deal of healing. The first time I truly tapped into my emotions over losing Jess was in D1 in March of this year. Sitting in the movie theater for two hours last weekend was almost as emotionally gut-wrenching as those three days I spent at D1. (And if you’ve been to D1, you know how intense that experience is.)

Before Discovery, I wouldn’t have given myself the freedom to fall apart in a movie theatre. I would’ve stuffed it down and avoided the feelings. But after 30-some years of stuffing and avoiding them, I’ve learned to just let the emotions come, to ride the wave and give into the current. The feeling will pass; it’s not the whole picture, it’s simply part of the puzzle of what makes me.

It’s me doing all the things and feeling all the feelings.

The Father I Needed

I am a daughter who needed a father.

I have no recollection of a sparkle in your eye when you looked at me.

I needed a father whose eyes lit up when I entered his line of sight.

I never felt treasured.

I needed a father who considered me a gift.

My worth was diminished by everything you loved more.

I needed a father who loved me most.

Your attention was what I craved, but even throwing myself into your hobbies wasn’t enough to gain that attention.

I needed a father whose affection I didn’t have to earn.

I wasn’t taught the value of a daughter.

I needed a father who showed me I was significant.

I felt threatened by you.

I needed a father who protected me.

I didn’t have permission to express my emotions and feelings without negative repercussions.

I needed a father who provided a safe place to explore my emotions.

I wasn’t known by you—my thoughts, interests, passions, and capabilities were overlooked.

I needed a father who saw me.


~*~

Father’s Day is not a day that I can celebrate with enthusiasm. Father’s Day is complicated. It is a stark reminder of the essential absence of a father figure in my life. Those of you who have known me a long time might be confused by that statement. Yes, my father was present in the home as I grew up, but he was absent in every other way. When I search my memory for instances that relay evidence of having a well-fathered heart, I come up empty.

After decades of ignoring the deep sadness and grief of not having the father I needed, those wounds are breaking through the surface of my heart, ripping open those tender spots that long to be healed. Currently, I am wrestling with the fathering heart of God. I’ve heard, all my life, that He is a Father to the fatherless, a good Father, a loving Father. Yet, when you grow up not only without a solid father figure, but also with a worldview shaped by the belief that a father is someone you have to tip-toe around lest you upset him, making a connection to the true Father-heart of God is difficult, at best.

Believing, deep in my heart, that I am a beloved daughter of the King is a challenge when my human understanding and experience tells me I am easily replaced and unwanted. Accepting that my heavenly Father wants nothing more than to spend time with me is unlikely when my experience tells me my presence is a bother. Knowing that I don’t have to work to earn the love of Father-God seems too good to be true when I feel unwanted.

All this is further complicated by the fact that I have a lot of unanswered questions about my sister’s death. Because how are you supposed to believe in a good Father when He’s allowed the person closest to you to die? It’s almost too much to bear.

For now, all I can do is push those questions aside as best I can and focus on solidifying my identity as a significant and irreplaceable daughter and God’s inherent character as a Father. Because until that belief is deeply rooted in my heart, mind, spirit, and soul, every other truth falls on deaf ears.

When I first began intentionally digging into this landmine of suppressed hurt, the Holy Spirit whispered a phrase to me:

“You were my daughter first.”

I’ve not fully unpacked the depth behind that statement yet, but I’m content to camp out there for a while.

I may not have the father I needed on this earth, but I’m clinging to the knowledge that my true Father is pursuing my heart, showing me how a Father loves His daughter one glimpse at a time until the deep knowledge of it replaces my experience with an earthly father. I’m counting on Him to re-Father the little girl inside me who needed a good father.

I was His daughter first.

Los Angeles: The Summer of Endless Miles, Day 16

We arrived in L.A. late on Saturday, April 15, 2017.

 

Anna and I had a mostly-unspoken understanding on the book tour: if we needed to get somewhere in a hurry or had to navigate big city traffic, she would drive. If she needed a break for a stretch of road that didn’t involve those scenarios, I was happy to take the wheel. So, the fact that I was in the driver’s seat as we approached L.A. was kind of a big deal for me. Neither of us had realized I’d be tasked with navigating L.A. traffic at night, and when we realized it, it was almost too late to do anything about it.

Anna did ask if I wanted to pull over and switch spots, but we were already in the thick of it and the thought of maneuvering to the shoulder made me more nervous than soldiering on. It was nerve-wracking, for sure, but I count weaving through the throngs of cars on a hundred-lane highway at night as one of my proudest accomplishments of the book tour.

(Those were tough days, y’all. Let me have the little things.)

As I’ve struggled with anxiety over the last four-ish years, a weighted blanket has long been on my wish list. When I experience anxiety, I want nothing more than to burrow in bed under a heavy blanket. It’s an innate need that calms me. And because I was still in such an unsettled emotional state, my anxiety was also heightened. All day, I’d wanted nothing more than to burrow, but that’s hard to do in a moving vehicle.

We arrived at our destination and were met warmly by Anna’s sister Sasha. Anna got out of the car first—this was normal; I took my time exiting and let her get all her squealing out of the way. I took a little longer than usual, and she poked her head back in and asked if I was getting out. I told her I’d be right behind her. She closed the door and followed Sasha into the house, informing her, I’m sure, on my current state. Slowly, I pulled the bags I would need for the night out of the car and went inside.

Sasha hugged me as I entered the house and led me to the room where we’d be staying. The rest of the night is a blur, mostly because I went straight to bed. What I found was that the bed was equipped with a heavy down comforter that cocooned me just as I longed for all day.

 

The next morning, I awoke and was immediately hit by a tidal wave of grief. I also realized that it was Easter Sunday. (Another aspect of timing that I have yet to wrap my head around.) I think this was the first day I really became aware of the gravity of my loss. I cried from the time I woke up that morning to the time I crawled back in bed.

Anna brought me coffee, then breakfast, and offered gentle words of understanding (not comfort, mind you (because what comfort would be adequate), but understanding). We talked about how this was the first time I’d lost someone close to me, and my first experience with grief.

We didn’t have any solid plans that day and she encouraged me to stay in bed, rest, and write (more like insisted). She knew as well as I did that I needed to process some of the things swirling around my head.

I stayed put well into the afternoon until Anna came to check on me and see if I wanted to go out with her that evening. This was our chance to see Hollywood—including the infamous sign, so I said yes. I didn’t bother putting on makeup, but I did throw on earrings. I shoved my sunglasses on my face to hide my swollen, leaking eyes and we set off.

 

We cruised down Sunset Blvd…

…Anna signed books at Barnes and Noble and bought her kids Snapchat Spectacles…

 

 

… we met up with a Adam Hawk, a gamer Anna’s sons were acquainted with. (She definitely got cool mom points for that meet-up). Adam served us yummy tacos and flan while we modeled the spectacles…

 

…and, finally, we found the spot to take pictures of the Hollywood sign just before sunset.

 

While we were standing on the side of the road awaiting our turn to take pictures, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a faint rainbow arched across the valley. The very sight of it was a balm for my languishing soul.

Las Vegas Adventures: The Summer of Endless Miles, Day 15

A few weeks ago, I had a guest post published over at (in)courage. That post detailed the events that occurred in the wee hours of the fifteenth day of the book tour. If you follow my blog or my Facebook page, chances are you’ve already seen the post. (In a still-astounding turn of events, it has at least ten times more visits than anything I’ve ever written. Mind. Blown. Still.)

Today, I’m glad that part of the story has been written. If you haven’t read it yet, grab some tissues and jump on over to She Stands in the Gap at (in)courage before continuing here. I’ll have the rest of the story waiting for you.

Las Vegas had been a last-minute addition to the book tour, and when I texted Jess to tell her, she was far more thrilled about it than I was. Vegas was on the top of her wanderlust wish list while I didn’t want to touch it with a ten-foot-pole. Her affinity for a good party, stellar costumes, and risky adventure lent itself well to this city. My affinity for quiet, serene, and calm meant my senses were overloaded before I even got out of the car when we arrived. (Seriously, while Anna went into the hotel lobby to get our key at 10 p.m. the night we arrived, I sat in the car, slack-jawed at the parades of people streaming down the sidewalk and squinting as the bright lights of a city that never sleeps burned my retinas. I was not a fan.)

On the heels of the news I received that morning, I was a little incredulous of the timing. It simultaneously seemed like a cruel joke and perfect. It was almost as if that sass-hole sister of mine had planned it. We were in Vegas; it was her muse and I’d beat her here.

We collected ourselves as best we could and prepared to check out of our sketchy hotel situated on the Strip. Anna was in the bathroom getting ready and I flopped myself across the bed.

“Anna,” I gravely said, “I’m seriously thinking about getting a tattoo. Today. While we’re in Vegas. I need you to talk me out of it.”

She came around the corner, eyes wide.

“Talk you out of it? No way! You totally should get one. I’ll get one with you!”

I’d never wanted a tattoo. My siblings, mostly Jess and Josh, had been trying to talk me into their plan of matching or coordinating tattoos for months. In recent weeks, they amped up their arguments with pictures of proposed designs and threats of excommunication from the family if I resisted.

So naturally, in the fog of shock and grief, getting a spontaneous tattoo in Sin City was suddenly an option I considered.

“Google local tattoo parlors and see if you can find one,” Anna instructed as she disappeared back into the bathroom.

Phone in one hand and map in the other, I started searching. I also Tweeted a poll.

A few minutes later, Anna’s phone rang. Shortly, I heard her say, “Okay. We won’t get tattoos in Vegas. I promise.”

She came back into the main room and told me she had talked to Jana C.

“Jana said we CANNOT get tattoos or get married in Vegas,” she dutifully reported.

About the same time, Jana messaged me and reiterated her rules. We were scheduled to be at an event in Jana’s town two weeks later. She offered to set up an appointment with her tattoo artist in Minnesota, so we would have time to think about whether we really wanted to get inked. We agreed and an hour later, she messaged me back with a conformed appointment.

Our proverbial train had almost gone totally off the rails, but Jana had steered us back on track.

But we had more shenanigans up our sleeves.

We left the hotel, planning to drive down the Strip. I had no real desire to do anything in Vegas, but I knew I definitely had to see two places that were on Jess’ bucket list: The Mirage and the Bellagio. So we set off to find both. Appropriately, the first cross-street we passed was Elvis Presley Blvd. Of course it was. My sister had been obsessed with Elvis since she was six-years-old.

We soon found the Mirage, followed by the Bellagio. Anna pulled the car to the curb and we sat watching the dancing fountains. Tears swam in my eyes as I took the beauty of it into my aching heart. The music ended, and we cruised up the drive way past the entrance.

Driving away from the Strip, we set our sights on the next goal.

Earlier in the week, Anna had attempted to connect with Christine Brown, one of the wives on the TLC reality show, Sister Wives. Not only is Christine Anna’s doppleganger, but they are also cousins.

We’d plotted our route through Las Vegas on the chance that we might be able to arrange a brief meeting; however, the opportunity had never presented itself. So we thought we’d at least get a glimpse of the Brown’s cul-de-sac.

We didn’t have a lot of information to go on—in fact, all we knew from a fan site we’d found online was that the house was near the mountains and what the shape of the house looked like. Thus, we headed in the general direction of the mountain, weaving through the more upscale neighborhoods hoping we’d stumble upon the right one.

After twenty minutes of circling with no luck, Anna was resigned to giving up. I, a little more stubborn, wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. Perched in the passenger seat, my fingers flew over the keyboard on my phone, Googling any phrase I could think of that might point us in the right direction.

“Got it!” I excitedly announced. We’re a mile away.” My sleuthing skills had paid off.

Anna was a little shocked that I’d found it.

I punched the address into the GPS and we followed it to a small neighborhood. Behind a iron gate was the cul-de-sac that boasted the four houses the Brown family occupies. Anna’s phone was almost dead, so I handed her mine. She jumped out of the truck and approached the gate, hoping for a glimpse of Christine. I watched as she took a few selfies with the house in the background.

A few moments later, I was looking for something in my bag when I glanced up. Anna was briskly walking back to the truck, her mouth moving with indistinguishable words.

“What happened?” I asked as she jumped back in the vehicle.

“Kody and one of the wives just came out of the house!  They’re getting in the car!” she gushed, out of breath.

“Well, get out of the car!!” I shouted.

She grabbed a book and got out again.

“Take your sunglasses off!” I ordered. I thought they might recognize how much she looked like Christine if they could see her whole face.

By the time Anna was out of the car, sunglasses off, and standing in front of the truck (well away from the gate), the car was pulling out of the cul-de-sac. Kody and Janelle slowly rolled by, declining to stop for the book Anna held out in offering. In a matter of seconds, they were gone.

Anna climbed back in the truck and we stared at each other, adrenaline pumping through our veins. We were disappointed that we hadn’t been able to get a book into their hands, but we had found the house. And, I quickly reminded Anna, now we had an address. You can bet your bottom dollar we mailed a book directly to Christine a few days later.

Satisfied that we could now check finding the Brown cul-de-sac off our to-do list, we set out for a local Barnes and Noble to meet Brandi M., a friend of Jana’s and Katie F., a member of Anna’s launch team.

Late that afternoon, we set off for our next destination: Los Angeles, CA.

Grand Canyon: The Summer of Endless Miles, Day 14

On Day 14, we left the Phoenix area with weary hearts and swollen eyes. I was exhausted in every way but determined to press on. After all, our itinerary for the day was sightseeing at the Grand Canyon. Our first stop was for copious amounts of caffeine.

 

Fully armed, we set out for the infamous hole in the ground, detouring through Sedona. I spent much of that stretch of the trip on the phone and responding to texts from friends who were checking in to see how I was holding up.

As we approached the national park, Anna proposed that we keep the shenanigans to a minimum.
I wasn’t prepared for the sight that awaited us. Pictures cannot do justice to the magnificence that is the Grand Canyon. It was breathtaking.

Much to my dismay, my camera battery died right after I took this picture of this California condor at the first outlook.

There was a definite heaviness on me that day, and although I was excited to see one of the Seven Wonders, I was also very subdued. Staring into the crevice that stretched for miles before me, my brain struggled to makes sense of the vastness of what my eyes were seeing while my heart wrestled with the reality of what was happening on the other side of the country. Neither scenario made any sense to me. Just as I couldn’t possible see the entirety of the canyon, nor could I comprehend the enormity of the loss I was facing. Directing my gaze on sections of the rock formations around me was the only way I could take in the sight; focusing my mind on the very next moment was the only way I could keep from falling apart completely.

 

Alongside the ache in my heart, I was able to dig up a little lightheartedness—especially when I ventured closer to the edge of the cliffs to get those more adventures camera angles.

If nothing else, Jess taught me how to take cool pictures. Anna, who has an acute fear of heights and drop-offs (as I was quickly learning), did not appreciate my forays toward the edge.

Who knows—maybe she was afraid I might try to pull a Thelma and Louise sans car in my distraught state? At any rate, she actually grabbed my arm and pulled me back toward the designated path at one point. (I wasn’t even close to the edge, y’all, but it made for some hilarious pictures.

When I walked on an outcrop and directed her to take my picture beside a tree, she moaned and groaned and whined. Then, I somehow convinced her to pose as I had. (Notice the death grip she’s got on that tree.)

Just before sunset, we turned around on the trail and began our trek back to the truck. These huge boulders sat just off the path, and as we approached, I handed my phone to Anna. I climbed atop the rocks (no easy feat for my short legs) and posed while she snapped away. Back on the ground, I scrolled through the pictures, gasping at the perfection of one of them in particular: my silhouette back lit by the waning sun, arms outstretched.

Having spent almost two decades as one of Jess’ main photography subjects, I’m kind of judgy when other people photograph me. (Sorry, it’s true. Being photographed by a sister who knows all your peculiarities about pictures ruins you for life.) But Anna had nailed it.

“Jess would be so proud of this picture!” I gushed.

When I posted the photo on Instagram later, I captioned it with the lyrics from Imagine Dragons’ “On Top of the World.” Since then, I can’t see that picture without hearing the song in my head or hear the song without picturing this shot.

 

Like the book tour as a whole, Day 14 was both one of my favorite days and one of the hardest days; the pain and joy of that day are inextricably mingled. Holding the tension of both those emotions wrapped so tightly around this one memory is a task I struggle with daily. But the ability to write about it displays a small measure of healing, and for that I am grateful.

When Life Gives You Lemons: The Summer of Endless Miles, Day 12

Hi! If you’re just joining me here, you might think I’m currently on this trip. Let me catch you up: I’m not on the road. On April 1, 2017, my friend Anna and I set out on the #EpicBookTourTPD (TPD denoting Anna’s memoir, The Polygamist’s Daughter). I never got around to writing about our grand adventure in detail, so when the anniversary of the journey rolled around this year, I started writing. Nifty apps like Timehop and the On this Day feature of Facebook make recalling the daily details easier than asking my brain to bring them back with crystal clear clarity. 112 days of detailed storytelling is a lot to ask. So, throughout the summer, I’ll meet you here with a throwback tale from the open road. Enjoy!
~*~



As the sun rose following a fitful night’s [lack of] sleep, I checked my phone and was met with a slew of text messages from Mom about Jess. She’d had emergency surgery the day before and had been stable, but by mid morning her condition had rapidly declined. Between my less-than-stellar cell service, Mom’s preoccupation at the hospital, and my and Anna’s schedule, I was mostly out of touch for the rest of the day.

Honestly, in hindsight, I’m kind of glad I couldn’t move during the night because my immobility meant I couldn’t reach my phone, which I most certainly would’ve been scrolling. Facing the realities of what was happening in S.C. would have been so much worse in the middle of the night.

With a bag of fresh-from-the-tree oranges Donna picked right then in hand, Anna and I hit the road, headed to Phoenix to spend the afternoon at #the4500-er Heidi P.’s house. Anna had an interview that afternoon that required a landline, so we’d arranged our schedule to visit Heidi (who conveniently had a landline).

While at Heidi’s, Anna picked fresh lemons straight from the tree in her backyard. Let me tell you—I don’t even like oranges and lemons, but I’d eat them straight from the tree every day.

After Anna’s interview ended and Heidi’s kids arrived home from school, we jumped in Heidi’s car and set out to sign books at two area Barnes and Noble stores.

 

Later, we said goodbye to Heidi and headed to meet launch team member Karie B. and her family for dinner before heading to our host home for the night.

Dreary Days, Nostalgia, and Pumpkin Muffins

Sunlight dimmed by a thick, gray cloud cover filtered through the blinds, my eyelids cracking open as eyelashes stuck together by last night’s leftover makeup parted. Groggily, I rolled over, wondering whether I should get up or sleep in—what day is it anyway?

As it dawned on me that it is, indeed, Saturday, I also realized the date—March 11th. The day my life changed, one year ago, in a way I never wanted it to or imagined it would. Sometimes the blessing of a photographic memory—especially one that clings to the significance of particular dates—is also a curse.

It seems like there’s an awful lot of juxtaposition of binaries following me around these days: happy/sad, joyful/tearful, known/unknown, faith/fear, freedom/guilt, settled/homesick. It’s a dichotomy of soft places and hard places that I’ve never had to learn to navigate long-term—until now.

Even the side-by-side juxtaposition of yesterday—March 10th—and today, March 11th is a representation of the current paradoxical tension that binds my daily life.

Two years ago yesterday, #the4500 was formed. I didn’t know then how radically a group of internet strangers would change my life, eventually landing me in Texas. If I had known, I probably would’ve jumped shipped. I’m glad I didn’t know—because these past two years have been an adventure like no other. One that has brought an abundance of love, laughter, and friendship; it has thrown open doors of possibility one after another.

March 10th is a day that will forever remind me of a Father who answers prayers both before we’ve uttered them and also in ways that we’d never imagine them manifesting.

And March 11th is a day that will also be forever burned in my memory.

It’s that day, exactly one year ago, that I was sitting on the playground with my co-teacher and friend, Christine, at recess, watching our students play and explore, when I got the news that changed so many things.

It’s the day my phone buzzed and the text told me my sister had been diagnosed with a laughably rare cancer. The long, unpronounceable diagnosis stared at me from the screen…and, in shock and disbelief, I did what you should never do: I Googled. I handed the phone to Christine and tried to breathe. Tried to digest this information. With only an hour left in the school day, and a visiting former classroom assistant who could cover me, Christine tried to talk me into leaving early, but I knew I would spiral as soon as I left work and wanted to delay that as long as possible.

The 365 days between that day and this one have been rocky and hard to walk. There are still many questions that remain unanswered. The decisions that my sister and I—and others in our family have made have been difficult. My decision to leave South Carolina and move to Texas was such a daunting one that I didn’t come to terms with the fact that I had already moved to Texas until seven months after I packed up my carload of belongings and made the trek. Now that I’ve been here for nine months [to the day, as I just realized; I arrived in the Friendly State on June 11th of last year. I’m going to need to chew on this for a moment], I’m finally reclaiming some of the routines that the trauma of moving cross-country displaced.

When I lived in SC and taught all week, Saturday mornings were my sanctuary. A quiet kitchen, a slow day, a recipe—either precise and written out or experimental and thrown together in my head—and a little baking therapy resulted in one of my favorite weekend routines

When I moved to Texas and threw my life into the spin cycle of settling into a new space, I pretty much quit cooking, quit baking. It took months for me to be comfortable enough in my new surroundings to cook again. For some, baking is an art form. For me, it’s therapy. And this morning, I needed it. I needed a reason to get out of bed. (And aren’t warm-from-the-oven, slathered-in-cream-cheese-frosting pumpkin muffins a great reason to get out of bed??) So I threw back the covers, got “dressed” in leggings and flannel shirt and headed to the kitchen. Within minutes, I’d assembled the necessary items and accouterments and set the oven to preheat. As I measured ingredients, cracked eggs, and mixed the batter, I thought about the significance of this day and how I could easily allow all the unknowns that still exist take precedence over the joy of the work I need to accomplish today.

The act of stirring separate ingredients together to make one cohesive batter, of dropping that batter into the wells of a muffin tin spoonful by spoonful is a calming process. I can’t exactly explain it, but my anxiety levels decrease and my mind quiets as I bake. It’s therapeutic and cathartic though, so I don’t question it much.

Days like today, if I dwell on the hard and allow my mind to entertain the unknowns, I will drown; I will spiral into a darkness I’ve visited previously and to which I never wish to return.

Recognizing the precursory symptoms of this descent is one of the most powerful tools I have honed over the past year. Knowing that dreary days are more likely to bring a cloud cover to my soul allows me to press through the muddled emotions and lying thoughts that make me want to throw the blanket over my head, shutting down and shutting out the light that surrounds me. Choosing not to focus on the things I have zero control over, but rather focusing on the truth that I am well-loved by the God who sees all things is the first step to reversing the descent.

This doesn’t make this space easy to live in, but it does make it easier, and pumpkin muffins make it slightly sweeter.

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.