#EpicBookTourTPD

Summer of Endless Miles: The End Before the Beginning

The landscape is barren as the asphalt glides backwards under the tires. (Hello, West Texas.) Thousands of miles have accumulated, a few hundred more to go. We’re headed home. (And will have reached our destination by the time you read these words.)

It’s officially the last day of the #EpicBookTourTPD—the one-hundred-twelfth day, to be exact. Add this to the list of things I never thought I’d do. A four-month, forty-state road trip? With a total extrovert? No way.

To say that life has gone topsy-turvy over the last year is an understatement. So many layers of change—exhilarating change, traumatic change, anticipated change, unexpected change—have built up faster than I can process them. Because the positive changes are so interwoven with the negative change, it’s been difficult to write about them—much less celebrate them.

My sister’s death has cast a shadow over this summer. There’s no other way to slice it. It has shattered my heart into a million pieces again and again. I can’t imagine that will ever change.

(A plea: No canned platitudes in the comments please—well-intended or not, I’ve had about all of those that I can handle. And Jess is hard-rolling her eyes about it, too, I’m sure. If that offends your sensibilities, I’m probably talking to you. See my upcoming post on the most helpful words I’ve received concerning grief.)

One of the most ironic things about this summer of endless miles is the fact that Jess was the sister with permanent wanderlust. She’d been to Europe twice and planned to visit many other countries. The two of us had dreams of a cross-country trip someday, but it seemed quite intimidating to me considering my homebody tendencies. When I decided to accompany Anna on this trip (and finally convinced her that it was a good idea), Jess encouraged me to go. After all the adventures, she’d dragged a reluctant older sister on, she wondered what alien species had abducted me. I’ve wondered the same.

When things went downhill fast with Jess’ health, I had to choose whether to go home to S.C. or stay on the road.  There were many factors that played a role in this deeply personal process that I won’t address here. Ultimately, I felt that there would be no better way to honor my sister than to travel the country and see what she could not.

More than 23,000 miles later, I believe I made the right choice. Would I rather have taken this trip with my sister than for her? Of course. No question. But she’s been with me every moment and every mile—and I’ve had her own traveling mascot, Migrating Monty, to remind me of that. (A plastic green dinosaur as one of my most treasured possessions? Add that to the growing list of things I never thought would happen.)

Now that the trip is done, I’m ready to start writing about it—in all its overwhelming, exhausting, exhilarating glory–starting here, at the end, before making my way back to the beginning. First, I’ll need a few good nights’ sleep in my own bed.

Stay tuned.

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.

Own Your Brave, story

Balance

Balance.

Such a loaded word for only two syllables worth of vocal real estate.

We all want it. We all strive for it. We all wish we were better at it.

And we all beat ourselves up over the fact that, no matter how hard we try, we just can’t attain it.There’s always something that gets left undone, forgotten, or given less than our best efforts.

In  For the Love,  Jen Hatmaker speaks to the theory that our society is hinged on comparison culture:

“we have up-close access to women who excel in each individual sphere. With social media and its carefully selected messaging, we see career women killing it, craft moms slaying it, chef moms nailing it, Christian leaders working it […] Then we combine the best of everything we see, every woman we admire in every genre, and conclude: I should be all of that.”

That is so absurd. Yet, we’re ALL guilty of it.

We waste SO much energy trying to be good at everything, when we aren’t necessarily called to be.We live in a constant state of judging ourselves against the polished lives of those around us.We fill our plates with far more activities, responsibilities, and “shoulds” than we can realistically balance.

Jen H. likens this phenomenon to a balance beam. Of the impulse to weigh our lives down with as many hobbies, jobs, activities, projects, etc as we possibly can, she says:

 “meanwhile we have beautiful lives begging to be really lived, really enjoyed, really applauded—and it is simpler than we dare hope: we gotta unload that beam […] Decide which parts are draining you dry. What do you dread? What are you including for all the wrong reasons? Which parts are for approval? […] Throw out every should or should not and make ruthless cuts. Go ahead. Your beam is much too crowded.”

And while Jen (we’re [practically] BFF’s and she’s also part of #the4500, so I can call her that) speaks to the mostly physical aspects of a loaded beam, I wager that it can apply to our mental well-being just as much.

Because our minds get just as mired in the debate of who we are vs. who we “should” be. I know I spend a lot of time listening to the thoughts that constantly play in my mind. (Maybe it’s an introvert thing, but I’m always talking down the “gremlins” that Brenè Brown refers to in Daring Greatly.) In Brown’s research she uses the term “gremlin” as a synonym for “shame tapes.” She found that:

“shame derives its power from being unspeakable […] it loves perfectionists [hello, introvert!]—it’s so easy to keep us quiet […] Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for [Spielberg’s] gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.”

I have struggled with this for decades. I don’t remember having a mind clear of the shame tapes rolling. All the fears, anxiety, approval-seeking thoughts that have occupied my brain for so long are exhausting. And YOU cannot balance them. There is no balance when it comes to these thoughts. They become too powerful, drowning out the positive attributes we have, the messages of hope, and courage and “you are enough” that we all need to hear ourselves say to our actual selves.

And over the last two years, they roared in my ears, every minute of every day.

“You’ve made a huge mistake.”

“You weren’t brave enough.”

“You’re invisible; no one sees you.”

“What if…?”

“You don’t have what it takes to make a difference.”

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

“You missed your chance. You blew it.”

Those words in your head every day for two years will drive you insane. You can hide it well behind the mask of “I’ve got it together,” you can numb it, you can push it down deep and build a wall around it—but it will not go away.

I’d settled into this way of living. Ignoring all the feelings, the emotions, the reality of my pain and became a shell of myself. Presenting my happy self to the world around me, but inside I was miserable.

I could not see my way out.

I’m so thrilled to say it’s not like that today.

Over the past month, a series of events, connections, and words have been set into motion that have broken through that wall that held all those thoughts captive. My heart is free again. The Light has come and destroyed those thoughts, leaving them shriveled and whimpering.

As I was pondering the change in my mind and heart over this time, I realized that I had forgotten a key point.

In early September, I attended a gathering of my church and our sister church in Indiana. On the last evening of services, the pastors called for prayer for healing.

I’ll be honest—I was in a funk that night. I was 900 miles from home, I’d spent nearly three straight days in a car with an extrovert; I wanted quiet, I wanted to be by myself. And the “gremlins” were roaring in my head. But I stood up; I tried to pray, but all I could say was, “Jesus.”

After a few minutes, someone approached and prayed over me—for balance: “Jesus, bring balance to the mind, body, and spirit. Bring them into alignment with you.”

The person who prayed those words was a stranger. Someone who had no idea of the struggle I was facing. But God knew and He has made sure I know that He knows in a hundred ways over the past three weeks. And He has brought balance.  I FEEL ALIVE again. Fear and anxiety aren’t ruling me anymore. There’s so much joy in my heart, I feel like I could jump out of my skin.

By the grace of God, I have regained my balance after years of teetering on the edge.

Those “gremlins” we carry around? OFF THE BEAM

Those things we fill our lives with to keep up with all the “perfect people”? OFF THE BEAM

It has to stop.

It has to stop because it isn’t the way God created us to live.

We aren’t called to live under that kind of pressure.

But if we’re so caught up in trying to attain goals that aren’t meant for us to attain or listening to the gremlins that drown out our thoughts, we waste the beautiful, extraordinarily ordinary lives we were given.