Own Your Brave, Processing

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.

Day to Day

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.

Processing, Uncategorized

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.

Processing, Uncategorized

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.