Part One: On the Importance of Self-Care

I’ve been sitting on this post for a while. Sometimes it’s hard for me to know when to share something or if I should keep it to myself altogether.

Today is both Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday, a perfect combination if you think about it, so it seemed like the best possible day to speak on vulnerable things. 

Last summer, sometime around my birthday, I started doodling on a notepad. I was deep in thought about how to take better care of myself – a mundane topic for some, but monumentally important to me. As someone who’s always struggled with a depressive side, it can take an extra effort to move through the day intentionally, to resist the urge to crawl into bed and introvert so hard that a sturdy wall builds between the rest of the world and me.

Years ago I talked about this depressive streak with my grandmother. She, too, lives with the same little curse. She said, “I guess I’m just turned this way,” and it was then that I realized depression isn’t a cold. You don’t catch it a couple of times a year. It’s always stirring under the surface. Sometimes you feel it coming on slow and steady like a hurricane, and sometimes it pops up like a tornado, fast and furious, and you aren’t prepared at all.

There I sat doodling, drawing circles and lines and names, trying to discern how best to care for my mind, my body, my home, my relationships. Without medication (I’ve been there) and counseling (I’ve done that) and draining the energy out of my husband and closest friends (thanks y’all), I tried to figure out what is absolutely necessary to give myself the best possible chance of success in most circumstances.

While there are times when medication, professional counseling, and reaching out for external help are crucial, I have learned that how I care for myself has the greatest impact on how I move through the world. It is the core from which all the other stuff flows. 

Therefore, it starts with me, and since I’m married and view marriage as a fortress that must be rooted and built up, my husband comes next. Then come the boys, and after that, my closest friendships and family members.

This flow of care is controversial, no doubt. I know many moms whose flow of care is arranged differently, and I don’t intend to tackle or speak to their reasons why. Each woman (and man, for that matter) is capable of arranging her own hierarchies as she sees fit. Also, some of you are single with kids, or married without kids, or in various other ages and stages of life. The hierarchy shifts as life does. Of course!

WHICH IS TO SAY the hierarchy of care is fluid. There are times when care shifts depending on need, but when relationships are in good health, those shifts don’t shatter the system. Simply having a newborn shifts the hierarchy of the house temporarily. Basically, if I need to put more energy into myself, my husband, a friend, etc., I do.

So what does it look like inside each of the circles? I doodled those too.

Me First

While this goes against what we teach our children (“Others First”), I’m curious to know if we’ve made a wrong turn somewhere, like we’ve given no room for caveats. How can we care for others when we are not well ourselves? I keep coming back to this question: If I am struggling to stay above water, how can I be a reliable life jacket for any one else?

So, if my goal is to be the best possible person, the healthiest and most helpful to those I love, I need to address all aspects of my well-being (spiritual, emotional, physical, relational, and personal) with a list of specific questions.

First, the spiritual self.

This is the core of the core, the deepest heart space that needs the most attention. For me, it’s my relationship with God. It’s not a perfect relationship, but it’s an intentional one. When I feel the most disconnected from actual life, I can usually point back to a disconnection in my spiritual life.

Second, the emotional self.

If I let them, the burdens of the world will put me prostrate. Burdens I create for myself keep me comatose. Holding grudges, repeating mistakes, hanging on to shame – these emotional bags wear us down, so we must learn to recognize what’s poisoning the well and deal with them accordingly.

Next, the physical self.

Almost as important as my spiritual and emotional life is the attention I place on physical health. Yes, we live in a constant state of dying, but I’m not talking about physical fitness here. Body dysmorphia is my cross to carry in this world, so daily exercise isn’t about fitting into jeans or losing those last ten pounds. For me, tending to the body is the same as tending to the mind. Exercise is my best medicine, and there has been plenty of research to prove it can mentally benefit everyone. Additionally, physical care is about how we nourish our body and how we rest it. 

Then, the personal self.

We’re all given talents and gifts, passions and interests, and it can take a lifetime of sorting through those things to make the most of them. Whether they transpire as full-on careers, lifelong hobbies, or bouts of effort over periods of time, our personal work is important. I was lucky to discern my love and talent for writing early on, but it’s not always been clear what I’m supposed to do with it. When it comes to my whole health, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how necessary personal work is.

Finally, the relational self.

We aren’t meant to move through life alone, which can be a challenging truth for hardcore introverts. Connecting with people isn’t what’s key; it’s how we connect with them that matters. Am I doing my part? Am I being used? Who or what am I neglecting? Living in conflict crowds the mind, and frankly, life is too short to let contention grow.

When one or more of these areas is out of balance, I’m not my best self and that leaves the door open for other areas of my life to suffer. It seems like common sense now, but it’s taken me years to recognize my poor attitude or season of depression was related to one or more of these areas being ignored. Never has my life been unmanageable, but many difficult seasons could’ve been better handled had I tended to my own well-being with intention. This may be old news to you, but for me, it’s been a two-by-four to the head.

I don’t think there’s ever a time when all of these questions are answered affirmatively. We are never 100 percent, are we? Yet, if working heartily on these areas of self-care with diligence, then we’re setting ourselves up to be better partners, parents, and friends.

Next up: caring for my spouse, my children, and those I love most.

Two podcast suggestions for Lent

For the past few years my Lenten practice has been to give up fiction and read spiritual/religious/vexing nonfiction instead. It’s not the biggest challenge in the world because I love reading in all forms, but it helps me center my thoughts for the duration of Lent during times I’d rather be lost in another realm. I’ve already read Searching for Sunday and The Great Divorce, and now I’m re-reading No Wonder They Call Him Savior, which I read in college but am eager to read it again nearly 20 years later and see how it relates now.

In addition to reading nonfiction I’ve included two podcasts in my daily practice that I want to share with you. The first is The Word on Fire by Bishop Robert Barron, the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. I discovered Bishop Barron on YouTube when one of his videos popped up in the suggestions section. Surely he’s more well known in Catholic circles than in Protestant ones, but that means little to me in this context. Bishop Barron tackles tricky subjects in a manner that provokes discernment (which is the point), as well as highlights the glorious mercy of God and how He moves throughout this troubled world. I’m particularly enjoying the daily Lent Reflections. Today’s reflection reminds us of Joseph’s commitment and devotion to a plan he knew little about.

The second podcast I’m enjoying is Let Us Reason: A Christian-Muslim Dialogue with Al Fadi, an educational outreach effort from the Center for Islamic Research and Awareness. Al Fadi is a former Wahabbi Muslim from Saudi Arabia whose mission is to reach Muslims for Christ.

I enjoy the podcast in particular because Al Fadi strives to teach Christians the elements of Islam, which is something I’ve felt convicted about since last year’s election cycle. Short of the Five Pillars of Islam, I knew nothing. While standing firm in my own beliefs about Christ, Let Us Reason creates space to understand Islam from someone who was born and raised in it and possesses a deep passion and concern for those who still believe.

Both podcasts are thoughtful, faithful companions while I go about my daily activities and, like the books, bring me to a place of discernment and conviction during this time of Lent.

On International Women’s Day, I say Thank You

To my mother, who shuffled us here and there, took us to church, taught in our schools, made us laugh, passed down Grandma Wehrwein’s banana bread recipe, and taught us that joy comes from God and not circumstances, thank you.

To our two birth mothers, who made the hardest, most sacrificial choice one can imagine and made me a mother, thank you.

To Mamaw, who taught me that being a wife is a gift, that loving God openly and proudly is worthy, and that working hard from sun-up to sundown can be done without complaining, thank you.

To Aunt Gloria, who taught me that stubbornness can be a force for good and independence can still exist in a marriage, thank you.

To my Aunt Debbie, whom I miss dearly, who taught me that humor is not overrated (especially in marriage and motherhood), and that God’s love never fails, thank you.

To Grandma, who taught me the importance of a strong vocabulary and a well-rounded education, and encouraged my own creativity, thank you.

To my sister, whose friendship has meant more to me in adulthood than I thought possible, whose example of motherhood is one I look to daily, whose companionship is unlike any other in my life, thank you.

To my tribe of women, whom I truly cannot live without, whose friendships are a lifeline, whose examples of boldness, intelligence, strength, and loyalty anchor me, thank you.

To my GPS classmates, who’ve taught me that a woman can be anything she wants to be, from a physician, a counselor, and a business owner to a professor, an artist, and a homeschooling mother, thank you.

To the women who worked to make homeschooling legal in all 50 states, thank you.

To the women who work in our hospitals, churches, schools, and governments, thank you.

To the writers, artists, and dreamers who’ve gone before me, thank you.

To the women who show up when no one else does, thank you.

Finally, to my husband, who loves and supports this woman despite all of her flaws, thank you.

Book Review: Searching for Sunday

If this reads like a break-up letter, that’s because it is. Rachel won’t receive it, and that’s fine. Her pool of fans is large enough, so she won’t notice me quietly slipping out the back door.

My first experience with Rachel Held Evans was with her first book, Evolving in Monkey Town, and it was a breath of fresh air. It was 2012 and we were coming off a year-long break from church. We’d discovered we weren’t Baptist anymore, so when we moved back to Tennessee we hesitated every Sunday morning. That hesitation turned into an altogether protest. Exhausted of politics from the conservative pulpit and no answers to hard questions (or even an attempt to answer them), I needed a long hard break.

Rachel’s story was similar to my own. I felt like she had snatched ideas from my brain, a comforting realization that I was not alone.

Her second book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, was another watershed experience in 2013. She took Proverbs 31 and turned it upside down, or maybe she turned it right side up. Either way, she stirred my theological brain in a new way – pushed, pulled, swirled. I walked away feeling like a lot of it was meant for me. I tossed the bits that I thought were unnecessary, but mostly, Rachel was speaking to me about God in a new way.

Fast forward to 2014, then 2015, and mostly 2016. Rachel’s Twitter feed became less and less about God and the church and more and more about Hillary Clinton, the Democratic Party, and snide, shoddy remarks about the other side. Sometime last summer, I unfollowed her. I don’t care what she believes politically. I care what she wrestles with theologically. That’s what drew me to her in the first place. The empathy I once saw in her was gone. She had left the conservative church, but by all accounts, she didn’t hate them.

That’s not the case anymore.

I knew from the very first sentence that I was going to struggle with the book. Glennon Melton of Momastery wrote the Foreword, and the first line produced one of the biggest eye rolls of my life:

I mean, seriously. The world would still turn.

Side note: Something fishy is going on in the writing world and I don’t like it. Writers are being collected and folded into a super-duper high-profile club – like Oprah pulling Rob Bell into her prominent ring of spiritual experts alongside Glennon and Liz Gilbert. Rachel’s book was fraught with club references – Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sara Miles (people I read in 2014, 2015) … Watch out, Jen Hatmaker. You’re next.

I understand there is a larger, underlying marketing equation at work here. If you read one writer, you’re likely to read one who’s similar. It makes sense from an economical, book-selling point of view.

But for me, it cuts credibility. This club of writers all reference each other, all say the same thing, all boost one another’s books on their websites and social media. They’re on TV together and in conferences together, and now they are all on my nerves. It’s annoying. I wish they’d stop.

Actually, it’s fine. They can continue. Their fraternizing just pushes me back to C.S. Lewis and Thomas Merton.

Once I got over myself (and the Foreword), I got into the actual book and settled in for a dose of Theological Rachel. I wanted to know how her searching for a church had gone in the last few years. I had hopes that the book would not mirror her Twitter feed, and when I read this line, I thought, yes, she understands. We are tired of party politics in church! 

But then…

There was one jab…

… after another jab…

… after another jab.

Let me summarize: God made everyone and loves everyone, and everyone should have a place at the communion table, but thank goodness we saw the light and are not conservative Republicans anymore. WHEW!

There is good stuff to be found in this book, such as her chapter on Communion (the book is broken into sections by sacraments – totally something I’m into). She quotes Nora Gallagher, saying, “On those days when I have thought of giving up on church entirely, I have tried to figure out what I’d do without Communion.” This remark spoke right to me, as it’s been a big reason I’ve continued to attend church when I’ve really wanted to ditch it.

The chapter on oil under Anointing the Sick was also moving and gave me much to think about in the way of marrying eastern and western medicine with eastern and western theology in regards to healing.

But those flashes of inspirational thought are greatly overshadowed by Rachel’s political pin pricks. They may accurately reflect her personal marriage of religion and politics, but she overshot on assuming all of her readers would relate. She misunderstands that progressive theology does not always parallel progressive politics.

More so, the intermittent political comments beg the question: Are you shaping your politics through a theological lens, or has your theology changed to suit your politics? 

Again, her credibility is cut.

I’m not a Republican, so her pin pricks were not necessarily directed at me. But I’m also not a Democrat, so I don’t understand the camaraderie she’s boasting among her fellow liberal Christian writers.

Ultimately, the fact that I’m even referencing political parties in a book about God and the church tells me that I’m no longer Rachel’s audience.

For what it’s worth, the relationship was off to a great start.

CS Lewis Doodles

For those of you embarking on a spiritual journey for Lent, I want to suggest a delightful YouTube channel you might enjoy, particularly if you appreciate the works of C.S. Lewis.

I have no idea who’s behind the channel or what prompted this person to share essays and book excerpts from C.S. Lewis in doodle form, but I’m pleased as punch that he/she did.

The CSLewisDoodle Channel is a collection of 35 videos (so far) that literally draw out the words of the writer. Below is “The Necessity of Chivalry,” an essay published in August 1940 during the Battle of Britain, in doodle form.

My favorite doodle videos are of The Screwtape Letters. They are acted out – like a play – complete with drawings that feel like you’re watching a graphic novel come to life.

Perhaps these videos can be a companion to something you’re already doing, or maybe you endeavor to watch one a day throughout the 40 days of Lent. For me, they make C.S. Lewis more accessible, as the combination of words and pictures create a deeper level of understanding.

However you use them, enjoy.

Signs of Life Days Twenty-Four through Twenty-Six

We’ve gotten hawkish with our weekends. Protective, limiting, careful. We’ve skipped church more often than ever because we need sleep, time, a break. I don’t mind it one bit.

This weekend was no exception. I slept, I ran, I read. I prepped for class next week. We went out to dinner on Saturday night, but that was our only public viewing as a family. Otherwise, we laid low and it was wonderful.

My front porch posse:

How is this a Sign of Life? Because there is nothing more life-affirming than rooting down deep with my family and tying heart-strings with my children. We had family dinner every day. We watched The Force Awakens with Jeremy and played basketball with Jackson. Chuck and I went on a walk, just the two of us. We teased and laughed and talked about vacation plans this summer.

These are restorative weekends, the kind of days when our expectations are so low because there’s no reason to think too hard.

Abigail Van Buren, better known as Dear Abby, said, “If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them and half as much money.” There is truth here, and while I know there are no guarantees about where Jeremy and Jackson will end up in life, or how our efforts will play a role, these efforts in particular won’t be wasted.

Signs of Life is a blog series I’m writing for February 2017. It was born out of desire to replace the negativity and despair that’s been bogging down our friendships, families, and communities after a tumultuous election season. This series won’t solve the world’s problems, but I hope it will create a speck of light and positivity when and where it is needed. 

Signs of Life Day Twenty-Two

In October 2000, a 14-year-old girl who’d concealed her pregnancy secretly gave birth and placed the newborn in a shed. The baby died from severe dehydration and the young mother was sentenced to state custody. It was then that two women in our county, along with state officials, decided to act, and in June 2001, Tennessee’s State Haven Law went into effect.

In late 2015,  my associate pastor suggested I look into volunteering at A Secret Safe Place for Newborns of Tennessee. Not knowing what it was, I did a quick look online and found that it’s a local nonprofit organization that supports and assists facilities where mothers can surrender their newborn babies (up to three days old), no questions asked.

It also operates a 24-hour helpline to answer questions and educate young women across the state about this legal alternative to infant abandonment. 

Immediately I filled out the contact form on the site and inquired about volunteer opportunities. As an adoptive mom and woman who believes every life has potential, I viewed any effort I made in this arena as worthwhile.  

After meeting with the director and clarifying to her what I was capable of providing, I soon became the organization’s on-hand graphic designer. In the last year I’ve designed event fliers, invitations, and other marketing materials, as well as proofread a few press releases when needed. The director sends me info and I crank it out. I’m never in the office or at any meetings, but instead I’m in my home, doing the things I always do, but contributing what I can to the cause.

To date, 89 infants have been safely surrendered in the state of Tennessee, and while that may not seem like a lot on the surface, those are 89 lives that were given a chance. Their birth mothers made a brave choice, a sacrifice unlike any other. I am proud to contribute even in this small way so women may know that the option of surrender is available if necessary.

If you’re looking for Signs of Life in this troubling world, then I hope this post encourages you.

Signs of Life is a blog series I’m writing for February 2017. It was born out of desire to replace the negativity and despair that’s been bogging down our friendships, families, and communities after a tumultuous election season. This series won’t solve the world’s problems, but I hope it will create a speck of light and positivity when and where it is needed. 

 

Signs of Life Day Sixteen

The day was lovely. Classes went well, and Chuck and I enjoyed a lunch date. Please look at these donuts and imagine how delicious they are:

Once the boys and I got home from co-op, the sun was still shining and Major followed me around hinting that he was ready for a walk. Despite how comfortable my pajamas would feel, I caved and off we went.

We live in the county, so the roads in our “neighborhood” aren’t all that busy. Some of them aren’t even lined. And though there was a chill in the air, I was delighted to see that spring is on its way.

The patches of vibrant green are everywhere. We could still have a freeze, because in East Tennessee you can’t usher in spring without a massive freeze the week before, but nature doesn’t seem to care. It’s blooming anyway.

Nevertheless, the clovers persisted.

There’s not existential point to this post other than to show you how beautiful the littlest things can be, and how a walk at the end of the day, alongside the setting sun, is good for the soul.

Signs of Life is a blog series I’m writing for February 2017. It was born out of desire to replace the negativity and despair that’s been bogging down our friendships, families, and communities after a tumultuous election season. This series won’t solve the world’s problems, but I hope it will create a speck of light and positivity when and where it is needed. 

Signs of Life Day Fourteen

For the last four years my boys have participated in a volunteer program at our church that provides a hot meal once a week to anyone who’s hungry for food and fellowship. I’ve only mentioned it once before because advertising efforts in this way is unbecoming. They don’t need a spotlight.

However, earlier last year, their efforts moved from setting tables to actually serving food, and Jeremy’s best buddy, Foster, joined the ranks. Short of illness, they are there each week as waiters, conversationalists, and clean-up crew.

Last night could’ve been a night to stay home, not because someone was sick or out of town, but because it was Foster’s birthday. Surely staying home with cake and presents is more desirable.

And yet, he chose otherwise. He still wanted to fulfill his commitment to serving the community and being faithful to the task. 

As the driver and fellow server alongside Jackson, the four of us went on to a Valentine’s Day-inspired event and served dinner to those who were hungry.

This act of selflessness speaks volumes to me. It would’ve completely fine, completely understandable, to not serve on his birthday, to stay home with his family and enjoy the perks of turning thirteen. I wouldn’t have faulted him for it.

But he chose otherwise, and that is something.

Signs of Life is a blog series I’m writing for February 2017. It was born out of desire to replace the negativity and despair that’s been bogging down our friendships, families, and communities after a tumultuous election season. This series won’t solve the world’s problems, but I hope it will create a speck of light and positivity when and where it is needed. 

Signs of Life Day Seven

I had final interviews this afternoon for the piece I’m writing about death according to five major religions.

I know what you’re thinking —

JENNIE, You said Signs of LIFE, not Laments of DEATH. Please stop. 

I hear you, I do. But it’s all connected, and that’s something I just can’t shake.

This last conversation was the most helpful to me personally, so I wanted to share the best bits with you. I spoke to Dr. Mark Webb at Texas Tech University, professor and chairman of the philosophy department. Though he isn’t a practicing Buddhist religion-wise, he values the ethics and meditation practices associated with it, similar to Thomas Merton and the Christians mystics regarding contemplative prayer. Meditation is a helpful life practice, he says, it is beneficial to everyone – particularly those who dwell in the past and worry about the future.

People just like me. 

Dr. Webb went on to me about the time he was robbed – when valuable things were stolen from him and it sent him into a place of despair.

“My father and mother were gone, and now their matched rings were stolen. I wanted to give those to my grandchildren, you know? I searched flea markets looking for my things. I gave those robbers an apartment in my head. It took a good month to realize it. You just have to decide to do better. Don’t keep renting space in your head to past things. It’s just good psychology.”

I’ve never been robbed, but his story hit me like a two-by-four to the head. I have a MANSION of past and future worries living rent-free in my brain. They take up ALL THE SPACE and leave no air for good thoughts. I’ve taken medication to help with my anxieties, to chemically temper my worries. I am THE QUEEN OF ALL THE OVERTHINKING.

Even while doing yoga, my brain is everywhere.

Practicing mindfulness is not easy, but nothing worthwhile is easy. To live fully present in the moment, one must set aside the things that cannot be fixed or changed. What’s in the past is in the past, and the future is yet to be seen. 

In the last week I’ve been told and retold that acknowledging my own mortality makes for a better life. Decisions are easier, priorities are clearer. Life has greater purpose. Like Dr. Webb said, “To frame your life as an impermanent thing is motivation to make the most of what you have.”

I need more time to dwell in these ideas.

Until I have more answers, I’ll table the death talk.

In the meantime, the sky was magnificent today.

Signs of Life is a blog series I’m writing for February 2017. It was born out of desire to replace the negativity and despair that’s been bogging down our friendships, families, and communities after a tumultuous election season. This series won’t solve the world’s problems, but I hope it will create a speck of light and positivity when and where it is needed. 

Signs of Life Day Six

I’m nearly finished with my freelance piece about death according to five major religions, and this morning I spent about an hour on the phone with Rabbi Deborah Goldmann. Similar to my conversations with an Imam and the director of a Hindu temple, I went into the conversation knowing very little about the topic. I wanted to learn from a place of little bias or foreknowledge.

One of the most compelling components of death according to Judaism is that one must always be ready to face it, and to do that effectively one must live with  intention. It means asking for forgiveness when you’ve wronged someone, making sure those you love know it, and thanking God every morning for giving you another day of life. Rabbi Goldmann said, “You should live life everyday like it’s your last day. Students ask how do you know when you’re going to die, but you don’t know! So go to bed every night knowing you might not wake up.”

It’s a jarring thought to have that image in my mind daily, to lay down my head each night and think, “This could be the last time I’m in this bed, next to this man, in this house with these children, living this life.” 

What could be gained by acknowledging that time is fleeting?

Last week, a young mother in our community – only 34 years old – died unexpectedly, leaving behind her husband and four small children. It is the cruelest of realities, but it happens. It happens all the time and there’s no rhyme or reason for it.

So maybe there’s something behind this readiness taught in Judaism.

“You should always ask forgiveness from people you’ve wronged,” she said. “Judaism hopes you’re doing that year round so your conscience is clear. Tell people you love them. Go to bed every night with a clean slate. You’ve done what you need to do. And then, thank God in the morning when you wake up and be the person moving in the right direction.”

I am a Protestant Christian and my faith tells me that there is a reward on the other side of this life –  a new life in the presence of God – but I embrace the Rabbi’s words here. I cannot dismiss the wisdom and inspiration we draw from our neighbors, friends, and family members who believe differently from us. Life is a reward all its own, and if we acknowledge that each moment is a gift, fully and supernaturally, then how much more important is the way we spend our time?

Signs of Life is a blog series I’m writing for February 2017. It was born out of desire to replace the negativity and despair that’s been bogging down our friendships, families, and communities after a tumultuous election season. This series won’t solve the world’s problems, but I hope it will create a speck of light and positivity when and where it is needed. 

Signs of Life Day One

My first thought upon hearing the alarm song at 7 a.m. (“Across the Great Divide” by Nanci Griffith) was – Absolutely not. No way it is time to wake up. Nope. – and then I hit the snooze button.

But then I heard Chuck shuffling around the room, and then I heard the faucet turn on and off in our bathroom, and the realization hit that it was indeed time to start the day. Oh how I wish I could welcome the morning with more fervor! Because what does a new day mean if not new opportunities, a new start, a new collection of choices to make? Waking up each morning means I literally did not die in the night! It means I get another day with my husband, another day with my children, another day living this life I’ve crafted alongside others.

After a kiss goodbye, Chuck was out the door and I was settled in the dimly lit library where we do school each day and I work on freelance assignments. This was the view from the window, and I welcomed it heartily.

Good morning, I said to no one in particular. Maybe it was to God, or maybe to myself. Either way, it was a moment of recognition: This is a new day. I welcome it, and it welcomes me.

Before I opened my book and began the morning ritual of reading, I picked at the potted plants in front of that same window. I’ve been teased for my plants – mercilessly, I might add – but at this very moment I decided I’d no longer care about being teased. I love them. I’m coming out as a lover of indoor plants. I love fiddling with them and repotting them and seeing how they bend towards the sunshine. 

It is the tiniest of pleasures, and the impact it has on anyone other than me is zero. This is fine.

The day quickly paced towards breakfast and school and chores, and soon I was on the phone with a Methodist minister in West Texas talking about death. I’m working on freelance piece about life after death according to five major religions, and I’ve already interviewed an imam and a director of a Hindu temple, both of whom were gracious and patient with me as I sought to spell words correctly and understand concepts foreign to me. But the conversation with the Methodist was old hat. I know this language, I’ve studied this doctrine, yet I still asked questions as if I knew nothing, and I didn’t let him off the phone until I asked what he thought about animals in heaven.

You know, because animals!

He said: That’s a good question. It would make sense to me that animals are in the new creation. Are all the dogs I’ve ever owned gonna be there? Will we all live together? (he laughs) The vision is that the lion will lie with the lamb, and that may be metaphorical for other things, but I believe there will be no more devouring. We’ll sit in peace together. I can’t say all dogs go to heaven, but if there’s going to be a tree of life, there’s probably going to be some birds in it. It would be strange for there not to be animals because they’re a beautiful part of creation. God created the animals and said it was good. How could He all of a sudden say they aren’t good anymore?

Makes sense to me.

Signs of Life is a blog series I’m writing for February 2017. It was born out of desire to replace the negativity and despair that’s been bogging down our friendships, families, and communities after a tumultuous election season. This series won’t solve the world’s problems, but I hope it will create a speck of light and positivity when and where it is needed. 

An escape to the mountains and a new blog series

Part of my freelance work involves contributing to an online outdoor magazine. I get do to what I already love, snap a few photos, and get paid for it.

I welcomed this month’s assignment with open arms because I haven’t craved solitude this badly in months. The last time my soul was truly at rest was that weekend I spent at the monastery, and since I can’t skip off to Trappist, Kentucky, retreating to the Great Smoky Mountains is the next best thing.

The timing of the assignment was ideal because I’ve made a grave mistake of internalizing stress from the political discord among friends, family, and even my church. How quickly we devolve into groups and sides, easily forgetting or ignoring all that common ground between us. Most of the time I find social media to be this magnificent connector of time and space, a way for Army brats like me to see many people and places at one time.

But lately, Facebook, in particular, has been a cesspool of despair and outright cruelty. Desperate for relief, I unplugged on Saturday and ran off to the mountains alone.

From the desperation grew a desire to draw closer to God, to dig my feet into something stable. Strangely, I unearthed some vintage Steven Curtis Chapman and drove teary-eyed listening to the playlist from my most formative spiritual years.

Once I was parked and fully unplugged, I started to climb the steep hill in front me – Chestnut Top Trail. Leaving the music in the car, I meditated on the sound of rustling leaves and the crunching of twigs beneath my feet. I climbed and lamented. I hiked and cried.

Thankful for the perfect weather and the mostly empty trails, I hiked for five hours straight, until my legs were dead sore and two nasty blisters were fully formed. Around each bend was something beautiful, so even as my body said, “Time to turn back,” my heart was saying, “I wonder what’s on the other side of that knoll.”

I drove to a second trail – because why not? – and walked painstakingly two more miles into the Great Smoky Mountains.

I wanted to keep going, and I would’ve kept going, but I knew that no amount of time would’ve been long enough. I could go another hour and still crave ten more. Something else had to change.

It was only when I came upon these tiny mushrooms growing out of a fallen tree, it hit me: I can’t rely on these tiny escapes. Monks and mountains can do only so much. No, I need a revival in my day-to-day. Instead of one big AH-HA, I need lots of little awes.

In the words of Steven Curtis Chapman, I need to see more signs of life to prove that despair and division are not in charge.

But how to accomplish this, I asked myself. Is it realistic to expect little wonders on the mundane hamster wheel of everyday life?

Maybe. If I look hard enough, then maybe.

Thus became my goal for February: to post a daily Sign of Life, whatever that is in my world. Maybe I capture Jeremy and Jackson in laughing fits. Maybe I see something blooming where it shouldn’t. Maybe I meet someone whom I can help, or someone who can help me, or maybe there’s a sunset so large and vibrant that I absolutely must show you.

I’ve not mapped this out yet, but I know there’s something tangible here.

Maybe you’ll join me?

16 Things I Learned in 2016

Over the last week, and then again today while on a run, I sorted through 2016 and whittled down a collection of lessons I’ve learned in the last year. I’ve never been keen on setting resolutions, but in recent years I’ve worked hard to be mindful of my mistakes and efforted not to repeat them. I look critically at myself, at how I’ve behaved, at things I’ve said, and resolved, in a way, not to repeat them when they’ve not been helpful. I fail, of course, like we all do, but I endeavor to be better anyway.

2016 was a mostly good year for our family. Last night during dinner we went around naming the things we loved – from the boys turning 10 and 13, to Jeremy getting his first deer, to our anniversary trip to Key West and the unmatched experience at Lambeau Field. In 2016, I started teaching at the homeschool co-op, and I ran a relay race in April and got my 15th medal at a half marathon in December. I spent a long, pensive weekend at a monastery in July and had photo sessions in the double digits. Jeremy saved up his own money to buy an iPod, rode roller coasters with his brother at Hershey Park, and Jackson saw firsthand what it might be like to be a sports statistician.  Chuck has excelled in his job too, though I cannot disclose those details here. Just know that he continues to be amazing.

So yeah, 2016 was mostly very good. I am thankful, but I am also watchful. There are always areas in which to improve and grow. With that, here are 16 things I learned in 2016:

No. 1 Parenting evolves. We have a teenager in the house now. A baby teenager, but a teenager nonetheless. We are now in constant negotiations with Jeremy over what we allow, what we don’t, what will benefit him, what won’t. Chuck and I talk regularly about how things are changing with our oldest son, comparing how it was when we were 13, comparing how it is with other teenagers we know. We are doing our best, I am sure, but long gone are the days of nap times and lessons about sharing.

No. 2 But it also stays the same. Regardless of the boys’ age and stage, the Miller House Rules are the same as ever: Family first, be kind to everyone, work hard, do your best, tell the truth. Obey Mom and Dad, and remember that privileges are earned, not freely given. There is nothing you can do to lose our love, but you will probably never know the WiFi password.

No. 3 Faith evolves. It is good to have your faith challenged, even when the process is painful and seemingly unending. Read books that challenge your ideas and be in conversation with others who believe differently than you. I have never lost my faith, but it has evolved a dozen times. Each time I’m stretched and twisted, and even when I’ve recoiled, I settle into a deeper understanding of what it means to follow Christ.

No. 4 But God stays the same. It is humbling and reassuring to know that God sees me, hears me, knows me, and still loves me. If I know nothing else, then this must be enough.

No. 5 We are not promised time. Death is a curious, cruel thing, and when those we love pass on from this world, death seems to linger and take up space where it is not wanted. Several friends have lost parents, siblings, and children in the last few years, reminding me again and again that we are not promised a single moment beyond right now. When we live like we have endless time we deceive ourselves. Better to look at the truth of our mortality and make decisions accordingly. For example…

No. 6 Don’t waste time. Don’t waste time on bad television, bad company, and bad food. Read good books, and drink good coffee. Choose friendships that have reciprocal benefits and strive to keep those friendships thriving. Work hard and play harder. Take care of yourself. Take care of your kids. Take care of your spouse. Travel and exercise and get enough sleep. These things are time well spent.

No. 7 It’s okay to say no. The older I get, the more emboldened I feel to say no. Saying no means several things, such as “If I say yes, then I’m overcommitted and I can’t keep doing that anymore,” and “I don’t feel the way you do about this thing, so I need to say no,” and “This doesn’t align with my priorities, so I’m saying no.” Saying no doesn’t mean you’re a curmudgeon or that you’re selfish or that you think your time is more important than someone else’s. It just means you are careful with your time, that you don’t have endless talents and efforts to spread around thinly. Invest your whole self where you can, where you desire to, and say no to the rest. IT’S OKAY.

No. 8 My body is different now. For someone who’s struggled with body dysmorphia for more than 20 years, this is a hard truth to swallow. I still run, lift, stretch, and sweat, and I am thankful that I can still do these things, but my body is not what it was even five years ago. It is more important than ever that I’m careful, watchful. It is essential that I eat well, that I rest when my body begs for it, that I remain thankful for all of my abilities, even though I’m not as fast as I want to be, as skinny as I want to be, as strong as I want to be. Health is a multi-faceted thing, and today, I am healthy.

No. 9 Yoga is amazing. Once I finally committed to a regular yoga practice and was over the hump of it being “too hard,” I fell in love. I love yoga. I LOVE YOGA. I am thankful for the online resources that afford me a variety of practices so I never get bored. I am also glad that I finally bought a mat. Yoga on a mat is better than yoga on carpet. But yoga on carpet is better than no yoga at all. You heard it here first.

No. 10 I don’t want to give up on being published. There is much to say on this matter, but this isn’t the place. I am still writing. I am still working. The dream is a plan. I covet your support.

No. 11 I love teaching. This is one of the surprising realizations of 2016. When I submitted an idea to teach creative writing at our homeschool co-op, it was done with grandiose ideas and a tiny bit of confidence. Now, a full semester later, heading into the next semester with two classes instead of one, I am pleased as punch to say that I love teaching. It’s an unexpected treasure to discover you enjoy something.

No. 12 I do not value my skills as much as I should, and I’m primarily referencing photography. I am the queen of underpricing and overdelivering. Oh, how I wish I could set rates that reflect what I provide! If the money didn’t matter, I’d do it all for free. But the money does matter, so it’s something I need to fix. If any of these are actual resolutions, then this is one.

No. 13 Personal relationships are more important than politics. More surprising that Donald Trump’s presidential win was the splitting and fracturing of personal relationships in the brutal aftermath. While my family is still in tact, I know families and friendships that aren’t. It grieves me deeply, and while some may argue “principles over people,” I believe the greatest principle is to love one another. After all, when we are struggling, we don’t call Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. We call our people. So yeah, don’t break up with your people.

No. 14 My husband really loves me. If you know us in real life, then you are shaking your head. Silly girl, of course he loves you! This isn’t a realization I came to suddenly, nor did it only materialize this year. We have more than 20 years in the books, which means I’ve been on the receiving end of many gifts, gestures, and many more I love yous. Still, there’ve been a dozen times in 2016 alone where I saw my husband as more than a spouse. We really are friends. Best friends. We love being together. As introverts, we love our time alone, but when we’re ready for conversation, we often choose each other. We love to travel together, to daydream and make plans. I am immensely grateful.

No. 15 Teaching my boys to serve is worthwhile. Regular volunteer work is as important as school. Maybe more important. Do it, do it, do it.

No. 16 No matter what happens in 2017, life is good as long as we choose to find the good. We do well to remember that.

Negativity is the enemy of creativity.

This is a quote by American director David Lynch, and right now it paints an accurate picture of my current headspace.

Something has happened to my brain, and my impulse is to blame social media, or rather, the garbage that is projected from people who use social media. Paired to social media is also this election cycle. I am down, down, down and depressed about the whole thing. So much spin, so many lies, so much coddling for the candidate you love.

And where am I? I’m standing in the center of a tug of war, watching the flag bob back and forth, with people whom I love on both sides, and I’m all, “How did we get here?”

While reading the news feels like the responsible thing to do as a voting, free-thinking citizen, I’ve determined that it’s only made me feel worse. The negativity is heavy and I can feel its claws in my neck.

I am choking.

When I returned from the monastery in July, I possessed a deep sense of peace and hope. I loved the disconnection from the outside world, and it took a full week plus a few days to feel like I was back in my own skin. It was delightful.

Now, more than two months later, there is a paperweight on my back so heavy that I cannot see anything beautiful. I can’t think, I can’t smile, and, worse, I can’t create. My soul is void of potential because the muggles finally got me down.

dont-let-the-muggles-get-you-down

Friends, I need to take a substantial break from social media, primarily Facebook. It’s a cesspool of despair and I don’t see it getting any better, not even after the election. We’re all so mad, so worried. Some of you hide it better than others, but I sense it still.

There are several reasons why I hesitate to leave Facebook and the primary reason has to do with our extended family and birth families. Facebook is one way we stay in touch, but I believe we’ll find other ways to do so. This blog will still exist, so there’s that. Plus, Instagram doesn’t stir any rage, so I’ll continue to post images there (but not cross-post them to Facebook).

Leaving Facebook altogether gives me pause because there are dozens of lives I enjoy watching from the periphery. Some of you are having babies and some of you are getting married. Some of you are making big life changes that have me rooting for you from afar. I love seeing it all. But since there is no way to sift through the muck, I have to step back. The muck overrides the merry.

Finally, and this is purely selfish, my photography page has served as an avenue for advertisement. The menial income is nice, but it still is not enough to pull me into the ugliness.

Truly, you guys. I’m over it.

It will take supernatural strength to break the habit of checking Facebook daily, but I’m at a point now that recognize how necessary it is. It brings so little joy and so much heartache. It is not good to feel anger towards people I love, but that’s what this election cycle has done and Facebook has fostered it. 

be-soft

My goals in stepping back from Facebook are twofold: 1) That I’ll rest my mind from stressful matters, and as a result 2) Give room for creativity to grow. NaNoWriMo starts in less than a month and I want to be well-prepared to start writing a third novel. If nothing changes between now and then, I will not be ready. 

I will still write on this blog and peruse Pinterest (a creative safe space) and flip through Twitter on college game days, but you will see me less elsewhere. That also means I’ll see less of you if we aren’t connected in other spaces. I used to enjoy social media for the way it connected us, but something shifted this year. It’s ugly, friends, and I don’t enjoy the way ugly makes me feel.

Bypass the lawmakers and go straight to the heart

Another video surfaced this week of an African-American man being shot to his death on the street by a police officer. As expected, another round of outcries followed on social media and in real-life conversation. Shock, anger, despair. 

Obviously, I do not know what it feels like to leave my house with anything other than a general awareness of my surroundings. I do not fear that I’ll be mistaken for a criminal (even though I’ve been questioned by police, with handwriting samples and all). I do not fear that my skin color will prompt one reaction or another (even though I’ve lived in a predominantly African-American community and been told, “It’s a black thing. You don’t understand.”). My personhood a mostly a non-issue (even though I’ve been harassed by men and felt scared for my safety).

I do not fear for my boys’ lives for all the same reasons.

And yet, my African-American friends cannot say these things. Instead of situational discomfort like I mentioned above, they experience an ongoing, lifelong undercurrent of caution and fear because of systemic, institutional, and cultural racism.

First, as the wife of a former police officer, I can tell you with certainty that honorable men and women exist in law enforcement. I know them. I married one. My best friend married one. They are real and they can be trusted. Let’s be clear about that.

And yes, we can argue about the media and sensationalism and skewed reporting (much of which is commentary and not actual reporting). We can argue about criminal records and failing to follow protocol and all the nit-picky details people love to throw up to support their opinions-as-fact. We can debate whether actions are justified or not justified. Many people embrace the #BlackLivesMatter movement for its challenging directive, while just as many oppose it as a polarizing message.

There is much to argue about, but where does that get us? I could say it gets us nowhere, but that’s not true. It drives us further apart. 

Friends, I am confident now more than ever that we cannot legislate racism. We cannot make a law to prevent racial motivation (for or against a people), and we cannot rely on those in power to change the hearts of those who cause strife and death in our country.

If we really, really want to stir peace in our communities, we must talk to one another candidly and compassionately. We must confess what we don’t understand and then sit quietly while we learn. We must say to our African-American friends, “I don’t know how you feel, but I want to understand. What do you need from me?”

change-of-heart

This is how we change. We talk to one another, we empathize, we listen. We don’t have to share a feeling to validate its existence in someone else. In fact, if we continue to dismiss the deep-rooted, painful reality our African-American citizens (and friends and family) experience as over-reactions or exaggerations or isolated incidents, we only exacerbate the problem.

By the way, here are other reactions that exacerbate the problem:
– “I’m not racist. I’m colorblind. I have black friends.”
– “Racism isn’t as bad as people say. If it were, we wouldn’t have a black president.”
– “They wouldn’t get shot if they would just follow instructions.”
– “I’ve been judged for being a woman/Christian/white person/Southerner, so I know what it’s like.”

We get off on the right foot when we can honestly, openly admit, “I have no idea how you feel, and I don’t know how I’d react if I were in your shoes, but I’m by your side and I support you.” It doesn’t have to be loud or public or poetic, but it must be authentic. It must be raw. It must be rooted in the desire to connect rather than veiled in the desire to be right. 

Yes, racism is a complicated, multi-layered monster. Yes, it can go in all directions. Yes, it can be generational and rooted in the ugliest ignorance. But I believe we can beat it. I believe love can win. Oh friends, it’s not easy, and it’s not comfortable. I am convinced now more than ever that change does not start in the voting booth or with a picket sign. It doesn’t start with a Facebook update or a blog post. It starts in the heart. It’s messy and emotional, and it may require accepting that you harbor a quiet prejudice. But this is where we begin anyway. It begins by humbling ourselves enough to acknowledge when others are hurting, whether we understand it or not, and decide to grab their hands and ask, “What can I do?”

And then we listen for their response. Only when we’ve bridged this gap can we act with the hope that the tide will one day turn.

Our New Neighbors

When we bought our house in 2012, the plot of land across the street from our neighborhood was empty. It’s been empty for the last four years. Several months ago we saw a For Sale sign pop up on the land and immediately started speculating who might buy it and what might they do with the 6+ acres.

Two days ago we got our answer.

New neighbors

You guys. YOU GUYS. If you don’t know how significant this is for me, then you need to read these blog posts: First and Second.

I’m trying not to be the person who reads everything as a sign. I’m really trying.

But seriously.

SERIOUSLY.

Today we met the people who will eventually be building a house on the property, but in the meantime they’re letting their three beauties get used the plot and graze on the freshly razed land.  We swapped phone numbers and I told the owner that I’d be happy to keep an eye on the horses while they are away. I don’t know beans about the care and keeping of horses, but I’m happy to learn.

So yeah. We have the most beautiful new neighbors, and I can’t hardly believe it.

One foot at home, one foot in the Abbey

It has been terrifically challenging to fold back into day-to-day life after three days at the Abbey. I know – the math of that statement doesn’t make sense. Three whole days versus my entire life? Nonsensical.

And yet, that’s how I feel. Each day has been a careful step into what I hope will be my new normal. Less noise, more quiet. Less indulgent, more intention. Fewer complaints, more careful with my words. All of these disciplines are challenging because I’m not a single person who lives alone and has control over most of my environment. I’m an active member of a busy family so I have to make sure whatever habits I start will mesh with the vibe of the house.

For example, my “no noise until 10 a.m.” rule is working beautifully. When we start school in a couple of weeks, we’ll move it to 9 a.m. The boys have learned to move about the house a bit more quietly in the mornings, which I appreciate.

Though I’ve gotten back on Facebook a few times, I still do not have the app on my phone, nor do I plan to put it back on my phone. I am doing my best to limit Twitter, but with election season and all… It’s hard. The negativity is so strong, but the information is so good.

Television is… noisy. Still not fully integrated there.

Instead of busying my mind with what’s going on outside these walls, I’m readying the boys and myself for the school year. I’m editing the book and preparing for the literature and creative writing class I’m teaching at our co-op. We’re signing up for fall sports and volunteer work, and I’m thinking about what race to run this fall.

There’s plenty to focus on, like these two cuties who sit at my feet while I type.

Major and Sam July 2016

I did not expect the Abbey to leave this deep of an impression on me, but I’m not mad about it. Tomorrow is my birthday. Year 38. I’m curious to know if any new habits or disciplines will positively affect the course or outcome of the next 12 months. This time last year I was very down about all the rejection letters I’d received from literary agents. Though they were plump full of compliments and constructive criticism, they were rejections still. (My sweet husband planned the most fantastic birthday surprise ever and it was just the boost I needed.)

birthday surprise 2015

This week, I’m taking it slow. I’m listening and watching. I’ll be writing query letters again soon, and it’s quite possible that I’ll endure another painful round of rejections in 2017.

Or, maybe not.

Whatever happens in Year 38, I’m going into it with my eyes and ears open. A lot can happen when you pay attention.

Diary of a Retreatant: The Last Hours

*This is the sixth and final post about my experience at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, on July 22-24. Links to the previous five posts are below.

Diary of a Retreatant: Showing Up
Diary of a Retreatant: Hike to the Statues
Diary of a Retreatant: Saturday Morning Sunrise
Diary of a Retreatant: Father Carlos
Diary of a Retreatant: The Horses

The experience in the woods on Sunday morning was by far the most meaningful to me. It aligns with dozens of circumstances and conversations that have unfolded since I decided to chase the dream of writing fiction. Things happened when writing the first book and they’ve happened while writing the second. Each event – big and small – have made tiny deposits in my heart that confirm that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.

After the two-hour walk and those precious few seconds with the horses, I returned to the Abbey just in time to quickly shower and eat lunch. It was my favorite meal thus far: asparagus, roasted red pepper soup with gouda cheese (yummers!), and seafood salad. Annette and I sat in silence over a meal for the last time. Afterward in the elevator, I whispered to her that I’d like to edit the last few chapters one more time and then I’d be ready to go. She was accommodating either way, which I appreciated.

It’s important to note here that neither Annette nor I knew what to expect out of this weekend, at least not fully, but we both went into the experience open to whatever God wanted to do with us. Both her camera and cell phone were unexpectedly out of commission, thereby forcing her to fully disconnect in a way she didn’t intend. I won’t divulge the details of her silent retreat experience (they aren’t my details to share), but she too came away feeling as though God spoke directly to her heart on specific matters.

There is nothing, nothing, nothing greater
than knowing that God is actually interested in you
and cares about the stuff you care about.

I re-read and edited the last five chapters of the book and worked on some dialogue until I couldn’t see straight anymore. It was time to close up shop and go home. We agreed to leave at 4 p.m., but by 3:30, we had turned in our keys and taken to the road.

Room 311

My experience at the Abbey – in the library, in the chapel, in the silent dining room, in the woods, in room 311 – cannot be summed up by overused words like special, spiritual, moving. Annette and I spoke about this yesterday on the phone. We talked about how difficult it’s been to plug back in to normal life, how the noise seems noisier, how the chaos feels more chaotic.

But it’s more than that. I’ve said several times now that we went in with no expectations, but now I think that had to have been an impossibility. Surely I expected something to happen, even if I couldn’t name it. I know I expected to sleep well (I didn’t sleep well), I expected to observe but not fully connect with the Catholic tradition (I definitely connected), and I hoped to finish the book (I did). I thought I’d come away with some inner peace of some kind, but actually I feel unsettled (and still sleep deprived). I spent most of yesterday deep-cleaning my house and getting rid of things because I missed the simplicity of the Abbey.

Chapel balcony

And TV? I tried watching about half an hour the other night, but the noise of commercials and the negativity of the news (bad choice, I know) left me feeling… icky.

Coming home has required more effort and energy than what was required to adjust to the silence and schedule at the retreat center. That is something I definitely didn’t expect. 

On the drive home Annette and I talked about ways to incorporate the discipline of silence and stillness in our homes. With children, it’s a challenge. With adults, it’s a challenge. With blue tick hounds, it’s a big challenge.

But there is always hope.

Path to the sunlight

Two silent retreats a year might be wishful thinking, but one per year is doable. I have to believe this is good for the soul.

One last thing and then I’ll let you go. If you were to approach me in person and ask about my experience at the Abbey, I honestly wouldn’t know what to say. Even though I’ve written six blog posts about it, I still wouldn’t know what to say to you verbally. (This is when mind-reading would come in handy.) My hope is that you can somewhat grasp what it’s like by reading these words, but my greater hope is that you would experience it firsthand and come away with your own conclusions.

Come to think of it, if you ask me in person what the experience was like, there is nothing left to say, except, “You have to go and find out for yourself.”

Learn more about the Abbey of Gethsemani here.

Diary of a Retreatant: The Horses

*This is the fifth post about my experience at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, on July 22-24. Links to the first four posts are below.

Diary of a Retreatant: Showing Up
Diary of a Retreatant: Hike to the Statues
Diary of a Retreatant: Saturday Morning Sunrise
Diary of a Retreatant: Father Carlos

This one is long.

After lunch on Saturday, Annette and I walked over to the visitor’s center and gift shop to poke around and get some sunshine our faces. We talked a bit, which felt nice, and afterward parted ways again. I went back to the library and wrote until 4:30 p.m., until my rear end was sore and I was tired of being indoors.

At first I thought I’d go for a run, but then the thought of wearing my running shorts (emphasis on short) made me feel insecure, like there would be just too much leg showing around so much modesty. Instead I went for a quick walk in what I was wearing.

I have no pictures from this walk because I took nothing with me. The woods across from the Abbey are vast with lots of overgrown foliage, and the paths are minimally maintained. About 15 minutes into the walk, I felt vulnerable to all the things I could not see, and thought, “No, this isn’t wise,” so I turned around and went back. I showered, went to Vespers at 5:30, then supper at 6 p.m. – Kielbasa, sauerkraut, broccoli and cheese soup, salad, fruit.

That night, Annette and I sat in the talking dining room. We swapped stories about what we’d done that day and I told her all about Father Carlos. We laughed and joked, which felt so good after being quiet for two days.

A funny thing though – after we were done, I was ready to go back to the silence. I missed it. I wanted to return to my purpose of being there, which was to finish my book. So I grabbed my laptop again and went back to the library until the WIFI turned off at 9:30.

Again, back in bed for the night, I couldn’t rest. What a cruel reality it was to learn that peace of mind is not something that can be absorbed simply be breathing in the same air as people who possess it. I felt calm, yes, but not at peace. As soon as the lights were off, I sorted through all the conflicting emotions of my writing career – 22 years in journalism, 0 years as a published author. It matters, it doesn’t matter. Write for myself, write for the literary agent. I know what’s true: I should write for myself. But what am I to do with the dream of being published? Why have these stories come to me if I’m to do nothing with them? 

Somewhere in between these thoughts, I fell asleep.

Lauds was at 6:45 a.m., then breakfast at 7:15. Oatmeal again. Back in my room, I considered going back to sleep. You could do it, I challenged myself. You can go right back to sleep. You have all day to write.

So I laid down. Immediately I poured over the last chapter in my mind, knowing I had just a little way to go until I could be completely done with the first draft. I thought of a specific character, and suddenly realized, She has more to say.

I jumped out of bed, grabbed my laptop, and went back to the library.

At 10 a.m., Sunday, July 24, I sat at a table in the library, Annette just a few chairs away, and I typed the last sentence. I finished. It was done. Editing was next, but still.

The second novel was done.

My body vibrated as I sat there, eyes darting around the room. Here I am in a silent library, in a silent retreat center, in a silent monastery, and all I want to do is scream.

I quickly ran back to my room and pulled out my cell phone, breaking a rule I’d made for myself. I texted Chuck that I’d finished the book but could not scream – obviously! – so, here you go “AAHHHHHHHHH!”

He replied that it was exciting, but it wasn’t the same as hearing his voice, as hearing my voice tell his voice that I’d reached my goal.

I laid down on the bed, nerve endings on fire, fidgeting. Mass was at 10:20. I could go, but I could also meet God in the woods. I could take my camera (and my phone for safety) and I could burn my energy there. So that’s what I did.

Butterfly

Butterfly2

Frederics Lake

Spider haven

I walked and smiled and took photos. I glanced at the map here and there so I knew whereabouts I was. I felt glorious, free, like I could run a marathon. Silently, I thanked God, I thanked Him over and over again for the weekend. I thought about my characters and how flawed and lovely they all were. I thanked God again.

And then, around the bend, out of nowhere, I saw the horses.

Horses by surprise

Friends, can we just take a moment here? There are no advertised horseback riding stables in Trappist, or New Haven, the closest city to the monastery. There is no horseback riding at the Abbey. There was no information at the retreat center about this being an option.

I DON’T KNOW WHERE THEY CAME FROM.

But then again, I did.

Did you know that I’ve been researching horses and competitive riding since the start of last year? Did you that I went to Franklin, Tennessee, in March 2015 to interview a farrier and spend time at a stable? Did you know that horses are a foundational part to the background of my book?

When I saw these horses and the strangers that were riding them, I knew they were there for me. I felt that they were there for me. 

My gift from God

As soon as they passed, I broke down and cried. There, in the middle of the woods, not 30 minutes after finishing the book, God saw fit to reach down into my tiny world and say, “I see you, and I love you.”

As silently as possible, I wept.

Sunshine through the trees

I kept walking but I no longer watched my direction. I took turns and curves and kept crying. HOW AM I THIS LOVED? I could not process it.

Mossy

An hour later, I was still walking through the woods. I was still in a state of euphoric gratitude that I could not manufacture on my own.

St. Enochs stone house

The Hermitage

I checked my phone – it was nearing noon. I’d been walking for nearly two hours. Lunch would be served at 12:30, and I was a pool of sweat. If I didn’t get back in time to eat, so be it. I still had protein bars.

The walk home

By 12:10, the Abbey came into view. We would be leaving in several hours, but in that moment, I could have stayed forever.

The Abbey from the road

 

 

Diary of a Retreatant: Father Carlos

*This is the fourth post about my experience at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky, on July 22-24. Links to the first three posts are below.

Diary of a Retreatant: Showing Up
Diary of a Retreatant: Hike to the Statues
Diary of a Retreatant: Saturday Morning Sunrise

At 8:30 on Saturday morning a “Main Retreat Conference” was on the schedule. There had already been a “Main Retreat Conference” the night before, but I skipped it because I was writing. For whatever reason, I decided to pop in to the one on Saturday morning. Curiosity, I suppose.

The conference room was full and I was by far the youngest person there. I could tell that some people knew each other, either because they were wearing matching t-shirts or because I’d seen them traveling around the center in pairs and trios. We all sat quietly waiting for whomever was coming to speak to us.

It was Father Carlos, a cheerful storyteller, who confessed, “I’ve been Catholic all my life, but I only became a Christian at 17 years old.” Then he picked up where he left off the night before with a sermon (or homily?). He referenced the white board behind him that read, “I am: 1) human, 2) faith, 3) profession.”

Knit in mothers womb
Scattered throughout the silent dining hall are framed scriptures, quotes, and catechisms. They offer something to think about while eating in silence.

Human: We are all human, physically and emotionally. The nature of our humanity exists in various forms. We were made to be complex creatures with lots of things in our lives that don’t make sense. This is okay.

Faith: We were made by God and therefore have an innate spirituality. This, too, doesn’t always make sense. This is also okay.

Profession: This is what we put into the world, what we give back. It’s no WHO you are but what you DO.

Father Carlos said these three things do not function properly without one another. They are intertwined, our human nature and our spirituality, which funnel into how we give back to the world. But how do we cope? How do we manage when burdens become to big to carry?

“There is one place you can go to answer almost all of life’s questions,” he said, pausing for impact. “Google.”

The room giggled.

“But there is one question Google cannot answer, and that’s, ‘Why me?’

For which Christ did not suffer

He offered three bits of insight to help us wrestle with this question. First, he said we must have a “hermitage in our heart,” a quiet, private space to ponder life’s hard questions. Just as Mary pondered things in her heart, a place where only God was privy to dwell, we too must set up a space where we lay down the questions we cannot answer.

“And this is okay,” he said. “We will never know answers to the hard questions. Never believe someone who says they have all the answers.”

Secondly, he spoke of tenderness and the need we all have to give and receive it. He described one of his favorite works of art that shows a World War II soldier, clad in his battle uniform, grenades and all, ready to fight. He had his left arm steadying the gun draped over his shoulder. With his right arm he embraced a fellow soldier who’d been wounded. “This,” he said, “is tenderness.”

Finally, he spoke about patience, and said, “We must have the patience to serve and also the patience to be served. Nothing is gained by saying, ‘I can do it myself!'” Then he spoke of a young monk he mentored who once asked if he was afraid to get old.

“‘I’m already old,’ I told him, and he said, ‘No, I mean afraid to be in the infirmary and be fussed over all the time,’ like it was a burden,” said Fr. Carlos. “I told him, ‘No! When I am in the infirmary I will be happy to say, ‘Roll me to the visitor’s center and take me around the parking lot! I want to meet people! And I don’t want fried eggs anymore. I don’t want another fried egg as long as I live!’ I will be happy to be served because I have been happy to serve others.”

It was a point of view on patience I’d never heard before, but as soon as I thought of all the ways I get impatient with waitresses or check-out cashiers or any sort of service person at all, I thought, yes, I could be more patient with them.

When Father Carlos finished, I returned to the library to write. At 11:20 I went back to my room and laid down again to rest. Prayer was at 12:15 (Sext), followed by lunch at 12:30: corn on the cob, mystery meat sandwich, and salad. I skipped the mystery meat but got to watch (and try not to laugh at) Annette while she picked at the meat with her fork.

Following this particular meal, I was glad to have protein bars in my suitcase.