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.

The Night Our Friendship Almost Didn’t Survive: Summer of Endless Miles, Day 11

After a restful night’s sleep in Tucson, we loaded our suitcases in the truck and headed north. Our drive was relatively short; our destination was Casa Grande. Donna K. had invited Anna to speak to a group at her retirement community that afternoon. We sat on a common area patio outside, shaded by umbrellas—and while this Carolina-girl-turned-Texan appreciated the absence of humidity, the heat was intense! After the gathering ended, we headed back to Donna’s home for dinner which we ate on her back patio overlooking a lake as the sunset. It was so peaceful.

(Those are the only pictures I have for you today. You’ll thank me for that as you read on.)

Later, as we were preparing to spend time in the hot tub, an unfortunate incident occurred. Before heading to the pool area, we’d decided to ready the sleeper sofa where we would be sleeping so we wouldn’t have to when we got back. Anna grabbed the bar and pulled it up…but she pulled too hard and the whole couch lifted…snagging her toenail and bringing it along for the ride.

I’ll spare you all the gory details (aren’t you glad I don’t have a picture?), but our hot tub plans went out the window with that missing toenail.

Anna was in a hella lot of pain and I felt so bad for her. Once we got the bleeding stopped, the toe soaked, bandages applied, and ibuprofen administered, we got ready for bed.

Let me stress here that I felt so bad for Anna.

Let me also say that now, a year later, this night includes one of my favorite stories from the tour. I managed to keep this one to myself until just a few weeks ago when I finally confessed it to Anna.

Anna and I crawl onto this sleeper sofa. She gets her throbbing foot situated, propping a pillow underneath her leg to elevate it and making sure the blankets are touching it. I squish in beside her. (Sleeper sofas are cozy, y’all. This one was about the equivalent of a full-size bed.)

It took me a LONG time to go to sleep that night. Anna was out pretty quickly. (I swear her superpower is the ability to fall asleep fast and hard.) I couldn’t toss and turn because there just wasn’t room, but I did maneuver to a spot where the infamous sofa bed bar wasn’t stabbing my rib cage.

At some point, I fell asleep…

because I distinctly remember waking up in the middle of the night…

with the entire left side of my body pinned down.

I couldn’t move.

Anna, dead asleep, had flung her arm over mine and her good leg over mine.

I was trapped.

Being such a considerate person, I didn’t want to just throw her off me, for fear I’d cause her to jar her injured foot.

(Did I mention how good of a friend I am???)

I tried to gently wiggle my limbs free, but every time I moved, she moved, further complicating the situation. Finally, exasperated, I gave up. I don’t think I slept more than a few hours that night. I’m far from a morning person, but I’d never been so happy to the sun rise at 5:00 a.m.

Recently when I told Anna this story, I confessed, “There was this one night I came really close to smothering you in your sleep on the book tour. If our friendship survived that, I’d say it’s pretty solid.”

There you have it—one of my favorite stories from the open road!

Never-Ending-Texas: The Summer of Endless Miles, Day 10

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!

~*~

While relatively uneventful, Day 10 marked the first time we crossed state lines. Not one, but two. Y’all, it took us three solid days to get out of Texas. I knew this state was more like a small country but dang. It’s HUGE. Even Anna, a longtime Texas resident was astounded by its vastness.

To kill time and fight boredom, I’d been reading my our-now-shared-advance-copy of JHat’s Of Mess and Moxie aloud while Anna drove. We alternately cried (Chapter 6: Private Baby) and laughed until our cheeks hurt (Chapter I-Can’t-Remember-And Am-Too-Lazy-Find-My-Book: Jen’s discussion of introverts versus extroverts).

But this introvert needs her quiet time, even in the car.

We didn’t have a planned stop that night, but our goal was to at least make it to Las Cruces, NM that day. Leaving Midland, we headed for El Paso. The flat Texas horizon had given way to gently rolling hills the day before—a welcome sight to my Carolina-native eyes. As we drove further west, mountains began to rise in the distance, bringing with them a more familiar landscape.
After a brief stop at Barnes and Noble in El Paso to sign a few stock copies, we crossed into New Mexico. It seemed like the terrain changed almost immediately. I stared out the window, mesmerized. Until April 2016, I’d never been farther west than Indiana/ Tennessee/Kentucky/Georgia. I may as well have been in a foreign country.

Because we were making decent time, we decided to make Tucson, AZ our goal for the evening. Thanks to two very generous friends who had offered to put us up in a hotel the first night we needed one, we had a room awaiting us upon arrival. (Thanks again, ladies!) The sun set as we stopped for gas just over the state line.

I lost all track of time. And [very] briefly considered moving to Arizona.

Though it was late, and we were exhausted when we finally reached the hotel, neither of us could resist relaxing in the hot tub before crawling into bed.

 

~*~

To be continued….

My Forever Star

The last conversation we had in person, just the two of us, happened on an ocean-front balcony. We were watching the waves roll in, relishing the warmth of the late February sun on our skin. It was a Sunday. The next week would bring more clinic visits, hospital appointments, and my return to Texas, but for that one afternoon Jess and I talked about all the things sisters talk about. Clothes, shoes, and makeup were our focus; she was giving me all her best tips, tricks, and pointers for creating a travel-worthy wardrobe for my upcoming four-month road trip with Anna. She told me my current wardrobe screamed “tired teacher” and that she aimed to turn me into a “structured businesswoman.” I laughed at her, but made detailed notes nonetheless.

Two months later, almost to the day, I awoke in the wee hours of the morning to the phone call I never wanted to receive. She was gone; my sister had slipped away during the night—she’d taken the “second star to the right and straight on til morning,”as Peter Pan says. In a hotel on the Las Vegas strip, my heart shattered into a million pieces that April morning.

When I’d texted Jess a few weeks before and told her we were adding a stop in Vegas to the itinerary, she replied, “yes to Vegas. Always yes to Vegas.” It was one of her top bucket-list destinations and we were both shocked that I’d make it there before she did. (Like Texas, Las Vegas was one of those places I had absolutely no desire to visit.) So when I woke up to the worst news of my life, it was sort of fitting that we were in Las Vegas.

As the new reality of living in a world without my sister settled over me, the desire to absorb the essence of who she is and was flooded every fiber of me. I couldn’t let her go; I couldn’t let her be forgotten; I couldn’t let her slip away completely.

Mid-morning, I rolled over on the bed and looked at Anna.

“I’m very seriously considering getting a tattoo while we’re here in Vegas.”
“Yes! Let’s do it,” was her response.

Enter our wise friend Jana who talked us out of spontaneously getting tattoos in Las Vegas. She talked us off that ledge and made us an appointment with her tattoo artist in Minnesota, buying us a few weeks to really think this through.

Back in March, my siblings ganged up on me in a group text and threatened to oust me from the family if I didn’t get on board with their idea for a sibling tattoo. Even so, I resisted. No way was I getting a tattoo. Nope. Not happening.

Now, there was no question in my mind. I was getting a tattoo and I was getting it to memorialize my sister. At first I considered a shooting star because Jess had been talking about getting a star tattoo for months and now I thought of her as a shooting star, streaking across the sky. But I’ve never actually liked the shape of stars.

When I flew home for the memorial service at the end of April, I still hadn’t decided on a design that would encompass the memory of Jess without being cliché—something she was certainly not. As I was looking through some of her things in her bedroom, I found it. Years ago, Jess spent a lot of time perfecting a logo for her photography business. Finally, she’d designed a logo that was a version of her first and last initials—JL—that didn’t look like her initials but rather a design akin to a fleur-de-lis. I found it drawn on a random piece of paper and knew that was my tattoo. Simple, meaningful, and something I could look at for the rest of my life.

It’s been emblazoned on my wrist for just six days, but the more I look at this tattoo, the more I see a star in it. Like a star, it has five points—all in the right spots. And that makes it even more perfect.


My sister was a star.

She was bright.

She was unique.

She was brilliant.

And I can only imagine that she is even more so now.

She is brilliant.

She is unique.

She is forever my star.

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.

Autumn Arrives Again

It was a year ago today.

After too little sleep due to a rare and lengthy late night phone call, I’d poured my coffee on the counter rather than in a mug that morning.

I’d gone to work and taught my littles in a bewildered haze over the conversation I’d had with a new friend the night before.

My thoughts were frantically searching for order at the edges of my brain.

The weight of change hung in the air, palpable yet mysterious.

There was a drive to begin processing the innermost chambers of myself that had been buried deep.

I was sitting in a hard wooden chair in a quiet library.

In South Carolina.

My fingers pounded angrily at my keyboard.

Earbuds muffled the sound of my audible sighs.

The error message flashed before my eyes again and again:

Username and password do not match.

Locked out.

I’d tried every possible combination, but couldn’t remember the right password.
The email I’d used to create the account was no longer accessible and customer support was no help.
Reviving the old blog was not happening.
Two years of absenteeism from writing meant I couldn’t find my way back to my blog. I could read what was there, but editing and adding to it was out of the question.
But the burning desire to write was back. I needed an outlet.

So I started over.

On the first day of a new Season.

Little did I know how vast a season of change I was headed into that day as I wrote:

It’s Fall.

Autumn.

A new season.

Isn’t it interesting when the changing of a season actually coincides with new seasons of our lives?

(And the creation of a new blog because you’re locked out of your previous one. Grr.)

I’m finding myself there today…

anticipating the growth of new friendships

as the leaves go dormant for winter;

celebrating the domino effect of God-breathed events over close-held prayer

as the leaves begin to blaze radiant and descend their lofty perches.

The air is crisp,

with more than a hint of expectancy drifting along for the ride.

And, for a change, I’m attempting to drift with it,

without the usual anxiety, excuses, foreboding, etc.

that comes when newness is on the horizon.

Today, I’m sitting in a comfy recliner in a living room.

In Texas.

With last year’s “new friend” on the couch beside me.

The sound of planes flying overhead reminds me of my first-time flight back in April.

These days, the error message I’m fighting most persistently is the one that says this can’t possibly be my actual life. That at any moment I could wake up and discover this entire year has been a dream. (On some fronts, that would be a relief.)

My fingers roam the keyboard now because the words in my brain need out. They beg to be uncaged and given a voice.

Today, it’s the third…

(Geez. I have to stop and tell you that in itself is actually relevant. Three is the prophetic number of confirmation. And today was a day that held a bit of significant confirmation for me. As I typed the word “third” I laughed aloud when I realized it, because OF COURSE. One day, I might manage to form a coherent explanation of the ways that number has followed me around this year.)
Anyway.

It’s the third day of Autumn.

And I’m neck deep in the season of change that has been developing these last twelve months. I feels like I’ve covered more ground in the last year than I have in my entire life—spiritually, mentally, physically, relationally, emotionally, and geographically.

And I don’t expect it to taper off anytime soon.

Amazingly, I’m far more at peace with that expectation than I would have ever dreamed.

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.