The Plans We Make + The People We Keep

It has now become public knowledge that I recently left my job. But this blog is not about that.

This post is also not about the number of mornings or evenings I’ve spent crying in my kitchen floor this week, although I could probably release a few full length novels on the subject.

It’s more about sitting in a parking lot on a Friday afternoon and venting through a telephone line to my sister. I can’t even remember the question she asked me, but I remember the tears that stung my eyes and that every single fiber of my being rose to the occasion to answer it.

Nothing is constant.

I remember God telling me that when I lived in Georgia and was in the middle of panicking over something that would soon be just a blip in the rearview mirror. “Nothing in this world is constant, love. You’ve got me. I’m always here, but everything else changes.”

Part of me wanted to despair at His words. It seems like an awful way to live, never being able to fully anticipate the future. But I felt a sort of freedom wash over me because it meant that few of my choices would be set in stone. These things that get me so tied up in knots wouldn’t and couldn’t ruin my life because they would never be a constant.

I never intended to take a job that I would quit in seven months.

I never intended to be left without a plan.

Believe me when I tell you I pretty much didn’t intend on anything that’s happened in the last week and a half.

And months later staring at a set of poorly trimmed hedges, I said something that I felt to be fiercely true: all we have are the people we choose to keep. Those words broke me when they came out of my mouth because they are the only thing that have been proven true in the instability of my life.

Plans change. Dreams change. Nothing (and I mean absolutely nothing) ever turns out the way you intend. Jobs don’t work out. You fail classes. People die. Families get faced with unimaginable battles. You find in the midst of a world that seems so cruel and full of disappointment that the only thing you really have control over is today and the people you want to stand next to.

I am convinced that this is one of the million reasons Jesus told his disciples not to worry about tomorrow. Because tomorrow is not what you think it is, tomorrow always changes. Your emotions will be different tomorrow, your plans, your circumstances, and you cannot live your life based on those things. They are forever going to change and you cannot anticipate what they will look like.  When you live trying to plan for them, you will lose out on today.

I’ve missed a lot of really good todays worrying about tomorrow.

Today there are things and people in front of you that are there for today and that’s what you know. That will be consistent as long as you have today. I’m convinced that the only way to make a decision is to realize the fragility and beauty in that.

My job has ended, but the relationships with the people are what I will choose to keep. Just like when I moved away from Georgia, from home, from other jobs and places.

Because during a bad diagnosis, a failed dream, a deep loss, or a huge success, what you’ll be sitting shoulder to shoulder with are not the plans you made, but the people you chose to keep.

Last night I got in my car and drove to my best friend’s house. I came inside and we covered up with blankets and just let all of the pain and frustration from the week come out. In the moment of being my best and worst version all I could think about was that line from earlier in the afternoon: all we have are the people we choose to keep.

Our friendship has been one of distance, miles, phone calls, meeting in the middle, but it has been one of the best decisions of our lives. When it all starts falling apart, my job isn’t the place that offers me a warm bed, a cup of coffee, and a place to clear my head. My failed or passed class doesn’t sit with me in my pain, anger, uncertainty, or lack of clarity. The poster of dreams I drew up five years ago won’t look me in the eye and remind me that I’m going to be okay, and that I’m not going to get stuck, there’s just no way God would let that happen. The friend we chose to keep in the inconvenience of circumstances, uncertainty of plans, and instability of emotions is the person who sat with us last night and reminded us that no matter what plans we make or change, we’re not alone.

I woke up this morning to an e-mail from one of those now former co-workers and she offered me a sort of invitation that stopped me in my tracks. She simply invited me to be a person she can choose to keep.

Even though my job changed. The circumstances are different. The constants I had planned fell through. I heard that sweet reminder again: all we have is Jesus, the people we choose to keep, and the people who offer us an invitation to be the same.

 

Choosing One Another

I had a conversation earlier that stuck with me.

We were talking about relationships and getting things out in the open at the very beginning. How it’s better just to lay the big things out right there at the start: the important things, the maybe-even-a-little-bit-crazy things, the dreams, the parts of you that you know just aren’t going to change.

There were a million thoughts running through my head. I thought about all the times I’ve tried to balance those early conversations–what you can say, what to hold back, what to wear, how to sit. It’s like a dance of trying to figure out how to be just enough, but not too much.

The idea that first impressions are everything is so engrained in us and sometimes we take it farther than we even realize.

Believing that first impressions are everything is often a way we unintentionally tell someone (or ourselves): don’t fully be yourself. Because you, the real you, might just go and ruin this whole thing. Sometimes this sticks with us and we find ourselves becoming someone who is always holding back. We end up telling ourselves people wouldn’t stick around if they found out the truth about who we really are.

Sometimes in our fear and desire we treat the deepest parts of ourselves like an arsenal that we’re trying to strategically figure out how and when to fire.

But the deepest parts of us, the things that make us who we are, shouldn’t feel like weapons. Our deepest truths shouldn’t feel like things that will one day inevitably lead to the death of our hearts or chances for a relationship.

Believe me when I tell you, we don’t want people to fall in the love with the first impression version of us. Because most of the time we don’t even like that person. That person is fearful and insecure. They hold back or they overcompensate. They often put their value in saying or doing all the right things. That person is a shell that carries your face and your name. Don’t keep giving that to someone, don’t ask someone to choose that.

You are worthy of someone choosing you, and everything that comes along with that, right from the start.

Sometimes we have to give ourselves permission slips to let our guard down. Because you’re going to waste a lot of experiences, a lot of interviews, a lot of dates, a lot of years if you are always so afraid to be yourself.

Here’s the thing: I am not going to go on a date and eat pizza with a fork. I will fold that pizza in half and eat it fiercely because if the man across from me is looking for a woman who eats like she’s at cotillion, we do not need to proceed any further.

He needs to know right up front that I cry at movies, on occasion I like ugly sweatpants, I have more crazy stories than anyone would probably ever want to hear, and that I have no plans to diminish my southern accent (I’ve tried, it’s just not going anywhere). He needs to know that I love government and I’m going to yell about the national debt and want him to vote in elections. I’m also never going to own a cat. This just needs to be said on day one: there will be no cats.

There have been guys that have cringed and tried to pull these things out of me. They grew annoyed at my emotions, thought my sweatpants were unacceptable, didn’t like being with the girl who sometimes told her stories to a room full of strangers, rolled their eyes at the southern phrases that come barreling out in my excitement. They’ve tried to tell me to tone it down during election season. They hoped my passions and personality traits were a passing phase. I wish I had figured these things out sooner than I did.

I don’t want to get my heart in something and hope or think maybe they will change. I also don’t want to find out that they’re thinking the same thing about me.

We all know how that movie ends.

I am also learning that I want to sit across from people and let them know it’s okay to say the thing that keeps them awake at night, the things they can’t seem to figure out, the dreams that make them constantly contemplate dropping everything and just going. I don’t want to be asked or forced to choose mannequin versions of people that seem to have all the right words or plans.

We are human and I think we need to realize that humans choosing one another is one of the most glorious, beautiful, but fragile things we get to experience in this life. Shells, mannequins, and masks choosing one another is something far less worthy of our time. But that is what happens when fear leads us to forfeiting who we really are because of who that first impression version of us tried to promise ourselves and someone else we could be.

On becoming a cheerleader for the people who broke your heart.

My knees sunk into the carpet and I found myself crouching down in the tiny space between my couch and coffee table.

I broke in a way that life had not allowed until that moment. I broke for the younger version of myself, the one who became numb in order to survive the pain. I wept for my present self, for the person who was now overcome with years of emotion that she had hoped somehow vanished over time.

I was angry. I was relieved. I was a combination of every emotion imaginable and none of them felt acceptable. It seemed too late to feel it all; it seemed somewhat irrelevant to my life now.

But the initial pain had been so daunting and threatening when it first arrived. It had all come on so quickly and so strongly that I felt myself falling into a hole. Back then, I feared that I would never survive if I allowed myself to feel it all.

So now, years removed, there is safety to let myself grieve those painful conversations, lost years, absent friends, and dead dreams.

But when it all surfaced, I needed to know that it wasn’t going to kill me. I needed to know that I wasn’t going to drown like I once feared.

I needed to feel it in a healthy and productive way. I needed a way to let myself process years of pain without becoming so overwhelmed that I laid down and never got up again.

I decided to process all the emotions in a way that produced something.

Because pain is a shovel and you can let it be used to bury you, or you can grab hold of it and break new ground.

So I went to Walgreens and printed pictures of the people and memories that are painful. I grabbed a pack of magnets and proceeded to hang them on my refrigerator. Around them I’ve begun to post prayers and promises. I pray for God to fill their hands with good and enduring things.

And what I’ve quickly learned is that real forgiveness looks like becoming a cheerleader for the people who broke your heart. 

It doesn’t look like sweeping things under the rug or tucking them in drawers. It looks like not being afraid to look at the hard things, but teaching yourself to pair them with good and kind thoughts. Forgiveness means choosing to fight for truth over the current facts.

I’m not going to pretend that that first week wasn’t torturous. I woke up with an aching heart; the last thing I wanted to see through my bloodshot eyes was a reminder of what I had lost.

But little by little, looking at those photos has gotten easier. And now each morning as I brew my coffee, I am slowly creating a pattern of no longer associating those names and faces with pain.

Because people are not the pain they’ve caused you. They’re worth more than that.

Believe me when I tell you that it’s becoming incredibly hard to hold back forgiveness. When every day you see someone’s bright blue eyes surrounded by words of forgiveness and grace, it’s hard to stay angry. Something in you starts to change when you’re constantly saying good things about them over and over again.

Sometimes we think forgiveness is just this intangible process that happens over time. But forgiveness requires participation and action; it requires doing something productive and positive with your pain.

Print the pictures. Post them with notes with prayers of grace. Wake up, brew some coffee, and say a prayer. Then, please come back here in a little while and tell me about all the ways you’re learning to love again.

When Reality Isn’t Romantic

My first warning sign should have been that he took me to a really horrible buffet and I said nothing. That being our first time out, I should have questioned whether or not I was on a dead-end road.

But I’ve always been someone who can find a way to make the dullest things seem enchanting.

So, I figured I could probably spin a story about gloopy Chinese food (at a place that looked like a prison cafeteria) into something romantic…right?

No. Sometimes bad Chinese food is just bad Chinese food. Sometimes a walk in the rain is not a cinematic fairytale. Sometimes it’s awkward and you end up coming inside to a house full of people staring at you while you’re dripping all over the carpet.

Sometimes the things we tend to think are charming and glamorous are actually just incredibly tragic if we step back and open our eyes to reality.

In reality, I was stuck in a weird “relationship” that was nothing more than a sad attempt to live inside of a story that, from the outside, would have made a great Nicholas Sparks novel.

But if I had chosen to have some hard conversations earlier, I would have saved myself so much time.

We keep growing the wrong things.

We grow the story, the attraction, the picturesque moments that make all of our friends swoon. But we don’t grow the roots. We don’t grow the foundation. We don’t inspect or toil the ground we’re planting in. We don’t stop and ask why someone is taking us to the worst Chinese buffet on the planet…we make an excuse and romanticize it.

We do this because reality isn’t always romantic. Reality is, if a man takes you to a really bad Chinese buffet, there will probably be a whole other list of questionable decisions that follow.

Rather than talking about it and pulling at the loose threads, we hold on to the hope that maybe there’s some kind of glamour to be salvaged or spun from a very weird and awkward scenario. But if we were to pull at those threads, we’d see that poorly crafted “relationships” fall apart at the slightest bit of tension.

“The griefs that punish us the most are those we’ve chosen for ourselves.”

Knee deep in studying, I read that line the other night and let my heart steep in those words. The stories we tell ourselves, the things we make up and choose to believe, those are the things that punish us the most. The threads we ignore, tuck away, and pretend aren’t there.

Because we know if we pull at them, it will all unravel and we’re not ready to let go. We know when a relationship is cheap, but we hold on because it’s something. Maybe it will change, and at least for now it staves off the loneliness.

But we need relationships sewn together with hard conversations, painful truths, and choosing one another long after the rose-colored glasses have gotten foggy. We need to stop constantly romanticizing the difficulty of walking next to another human being. It isn’t just something to Instagram, it’s something to grind through with blood, sweat, tears and lots of prayers.

It’s cheap to push aside those hard conversations because we’re afraid of spooking the butterflies. We have to stop clinging to that fairytale idealism we were told was necessary to keep love alive.

It seems we’ll do anything to keep our fairytales (even choke down a greasy knock-off version of General Tso’s chicken).

We ignore the threads that could so easily unravel the relationships we claim to value most. We don’t ask the question of why someone doesn’t respect us (or himself) enough to take us to a restaurant with a passing sanitation grade. Instead, we smile our way through it because we’ve convinced ourselves that the kind of relationship that lasts is one where no one rocks the boat.

But rocking the boat and pulling the threads is the thing that shows us where the leaks and tears are, where to mend and where to rebuild. We must learn how to be painfully aware of another’s imperfections, unafraid to expose our own, and the value of choosing the other with eyes wide open.

Because love is not passive. Love is not blind. Love that lasts is the kind that sees everything, is given a choice and chooses to say something; it chooses work it out and stay in spite of everything.

Life Is More Like Take-Out…

I started writing this from a hotel restaurant that overlooks the city, after a week that could easily be classified as one of the most exhausting of my life.

I kept thinking back to a morning a few weeks ago. After waking up, I drug myself upstairs to find my roommate brewing a fresh pot of coffee and wiping down the countertops.

I plopped down on our little stool that sits next to the refrigerator and let out a deep sigh, “I don’t like my life.” I said it so casually, as if it were typical words for a person to spit out first thing in the morning.

She turned with a raised brow, “Why?”

I leaned my head on the fridge and closed my sleepy eyes, “Because I’ve let everything and everyone else build it.”

She waited, like she always does, knowing I had so much more to process.

“I’ve lived most of my life basing my decisions off of other people. I live my life reacting to people and circumstances. I can’t remember the last time I made a decision simply because I wanted to and not because I felt that I had to!”

And she gave me this look, that without her even saying a word, I knew she was asking me “So, what are you going to do about it?”

All of that led me to this moment. This moment of eating fries in a hotel restaurant and making decisions that I’ve been afraid to make for a very long time.

I’m moving my feet and going places that I couldn’t have imagined because I woke up one day and realized that I needed to own my life and take responsibility for my decisions.

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you’ve probably noticed that I am not a fan of making decisions. I am the person who thinks multiple-choice tests are cruel and unusual punishment. They are the one kind of test that continuously makes me doubt myself because it presents me with so many options, with things that could be right. But if I choose wrong, it could lead to utter failure.

And that’s how I’ve lived my life: like a multiple choice test. One of these four answers is God and I’ve got figure out which one is Him or I’m going to fail.

And I’ve been taking this test like a contestant who is always trying to phone-a-friend. Even when Regis is yelling at me and telling me that I don’t have any lifelines left, I’m over here trying to pawn this decision off on anyone but me.

Because choices and options have always made me bleed doubt. Life often feels like a big test where I can’t just write a paragraph based on what I know and possibly get lucky with a professor who will believe the nonsense I just presented. No, for me, life feels like this concrete question that is going to give me choices that are all close together and could be the right thing, but could just as easily be wrong.

 And so I’ve waited. I’ve waited for people and circumstances to happen to me so I could respond appropriately. I’ve needed a cause for every effect; I’ve needed a good and logical reason for every decision I’ve ever made. I will choose the correct answer once I’m able to rule all the other ones out, or until I’ve run out of time and am just forced to circle something.

But when you live that way, sometimes you just wake up and realize that you built a life compiled by reaction; a life that isn’t full of passion, drive, ambition, or dreaming. You stifled all of your dreams because they might have been the wrong answer.

I do it at restaurants. I have three or four options in my head and I wait until the waiter is staring at me and then I blurt out a decision. I rarely know what I’m going to choose until that moment. The only way I choose is because I am forced to react to a deadline, to a frustrated stare, to someone expecting me to answer.

But life isn’t like a waiter; life is more like take-out. You have to pick up the phone and make the call whenever you’re ready—no one is going to force you to do this thing, to decide who you are and what you want. When it comes to the big things, no one is going to scream in your face and tell you to let go, move on, or make a choice.

It’s like we’ve been waiting for someone to walk by with a script that will lead us to our happy ending. We just want someone to tell us what to say, where to live, what career to have, who to marry.

But this isn’t a multiple-choice test and God isn’t a teacher with a big red marker waiting to write an F on your paper. He isn’t a waiter who is glaring at you, tapping his toe with impatience while you wring your hands over chicken or steak.

God’s the one you call when you are ready make that decision. He’s given you a menu and He’s happy to recommend the best choices, but He loves you and will stay with you whether you choose soup or salad.

Stop waiting to see what everyone else is going to order. And stop waiting for God to force-feed you the better choice. The choices of life are yours and refusing to make them or putting it off are only going to keep you hungry.

To Be Honest

My breakfast yesterday morning was a sleeve of saltine crackers in the Publix parking lot.

I woke up with a headache that could make a grown man cry. I swallowed three Advil before crawling out of bed and slapping Icy Hot on my forehead. That isn’t something I would normally do, but desperate times and all that…

I finally managed to take a hot shower, throw on my worst outfit and drive to the grocery store. I entered with wet hair, baggy basketball shorts, and a tight grimace on my face.

And then I went and sat in my car. I sat there pitifully eating a sleeve of saltine crackers, drinking a Coke Zero, and telling God that I had officially hit an all-time low. 

I haven’t figured out what it means to have order in my life. That’s just the raw and honest truth of it. There was a time in my life that I had order, I had peace, I had a schedule, a plan, a routine.

For weeks my phone has blowing up every five minutes with demands, questions, events, meetings, plans, and I’ve been on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

I’ve realized I don’t know what it means to be honest.

Part of this comes from growing up in the South, where being blunt is somewhat forbidden (especially for little girls). It can often be labeled rude, and does not make you appear hospitable or agreeable.

You must aways find the perfect way to send your regrets, which means– the only acceptable reason for not going to something or doing something is because there is another life-or-death commitment/event that you cannot miss.

So, from a young age I learned not to say no because I didn’t want to do something, or do not have the capacity for it. I believed you must only say no if you’re saving orphans or helping old ladies at the grocery store.

And the church did very little to help me with this. There’s a notion of always having to do the Christian thing. There’s the right thing and then there’s what the church calls the Christian thing and they, I’m quickly learning, do not always coincide.

So, here I am, a bold and blunt individual who very clearly understands where she stands on most things, but who has been muzzled by “polite” southern culture and doing the Christian thing.

This is where chaos and being covered in cracker crumbs comes in. Rather than realizing that honesty will always trump presentation, I find myself making the dumbest excuses and telling everyone “I’ll get back to you” as a way to give myself ample amounts of time to figure out what the polite and Christian thing to do would be.

And then, begrudgingly, I will do that. Even if I hate it. I will inwardly whine the entire time. But at least I’ll have the false feeling of comfort that comes from believing that I did the polite and Christian thing (and knowing that Dolly Parton would be proud).

However, killing your honesty in order to make others happy is poison. One day, you’ll look around your life and see nothing but piles of perfectly formed excuses, all of them lies.

Saying I can’t or I don’t want to is not rude and not un-Christian.

This is a truth that I’ll probably wrestle with for the rest of my life. I’ve spent twenty-four years of believing the opposite, so it will probably take a while to re-learn a different way.

Neglecting our health and sanity and refusing to be honest about where we are is what breeds chaos in our lives. We find ourselves unable to say yes and no to things because we sacrifice what is necessary for what is acceptable to others. We can frequently find ourselves lying, but convinced that it’s for “the good reason” of not hurting someone else.

I’m terrified to disappoint people, to hurt them, to let them down. I am terrified of being bad at commitment.

This became clear to me when I was in a season of attending three churches in the same day. I would go to a 10 am service, drive twenty-minutes and go to a noon service, and then eat lunch and then drive thirty-minutes and go to a 6 pm service.

This went on for months. I spent so much money on gas and so much time sitting on pews that it’s a miracle I didn’t end up homeless and in a back brace.

All because I didn’t know how to disappoint people. I didn’t know how to accept my limits. I didn’t know how to be human. I didn’t know how to say I can’t…”

What I’m seeing is that running away, making excuses, and just being polite aren’t my only options and they’re certainly not the best ones.

Learning to be honest, humble, and human is what’s required of us. We are to be loving in our responses, but that doesn’t mean lying to spare feelings or to make others happy. It means sometimes simply saying, I can’t or I don’t want to and knowing that our reasons won’t always expand beyond that.

I’m also realizing that all the hiding and the time spent making up excuses will drain you from actually doing the things you need to do.

I’m trying to become a person who answers honestly. Knowing that it might not get praise, it might be disappointing, and it might not be agreeable, but I’m learning that loving people by granting them my honesty truly is the best policy.

A God Who Caves

When 2016 came rolling around, I had one resolution:

Fight God less.

That’s what I decided. I fought Him so much through the years of 2013 to 2015 that I was determined not to spend this entire year in the ring with Him.

I sat down with my coffee and journal and told Him I was resigned. I was waving a white flag. I was done fighting.

Then He went and let life press all of my buttons.

Every single thing that could possibly set me off happened in the span of just a few weeks. God knew that my first reaction would be to come out swinging and that’s exactly what I did.

I kicked, screamed, ate cake, blasted my radio, drove over the speed limit. I reverted back to the days of being ten years old and thinking that the I’ll-stick-my-tongue-out-and-show-you mentality would actually work on the most patient being in existence.

As you guessed, it was a total waste of time.

The harder I fought, the firmer He stood. It was just me punching the strongest and most stable thing in my life. He wasn’t going to budge. No matter how hard I hit, no matter how much I told Him I wasn’t putting up with it anymore–God wasn’t going to budge and He wasn’t going to hit back.

So in those few weeks, there I was throwing the biggest fit you’ve ever seen and I realized why He was letting it happen.

He was giving me what I asked for.

I wanted to fight Him less and so He was going to wear me out sooner. He was just going to let it all drop at once so that I’d just throw everything I had in the ring right in these first few months of the year. He was breaking me, wearing me down, exhausting me to the point that I’d have no fight left in me.

I’ve always been a little defiant, a little mouthy, always ready to take and throw a punch when necessary. It’s never been something I’m proud of and thankfully I’m learning how to mellow out as I get older.

Nevertheless, in my final moments of defeat, I spend every little inch of energy trying to come back. I’ll give it all to win what’s an impossible fight. Even if I don’t have a shot, I’ll go down swinging.

I guess you could say that I am the John Kasich of arguing.

So, in the last round of this fight I got an e-mail. It was from one of my readers and she was asking me about hurt: “I know God is there, but it’s easy to question where He is in the middle of our hurt.”

I was laying on this crummy twin mattress trying to figure out how I was going to tell this girl the truth. How to tell her the thing I love most and least about God:

He’s right in front of you.

He’s like the parent that hovers when you’re newly sixteen and trying to explore all of your newfound freedom.

He’s the clingy Dad who’s standing there and saying “I love you too much to let you have all the control.”

Because He knows I don’t want my version of freedom. I don’t want to do whatever I want. I want the freedom of living a life that is worth living–one that’s defined by pursuing the best. And only God knows what’s best.

So I wanted to find that girl, sit her down, and tell her the thing that she’s probably been told a million times: God is there.

He’s standing in your face. He is staring you down and saying, “You know it doesn’t matter how bad this gets. It doesn’t matter how much you hate me. It doesn’t matter if you threaten to run away from home, I’m going to do what’s best for you.”

I can make my choices, but my choices won’t change His. He’s going to do what’s best for me. Whatever that looks like. Whatever fight I put up.

The pain, the anger, the heartache, the moments of agony are not a product of God’s wrath or of His absence. They’re a product of us crazy humans throwing our punches and thinking that we can do this thing without Him; it’s a product of all of us thinking we know better.

We don’t want a God who gives us what we want. We don’t want a God who caves, who gets tired of hearing us cry and then shuts us up by giving us something that would ruin us.

He’s the parent who stands there, watches us with love, hates our pain, but says “I love you too much to give you the things you think you want.”

Our deepest pain comes not from circumstances, but from the frustration that comes with thinking that we could have or would have done things better if we had been God.

If we could see what He sees, if we could know what He knows, we would be so thankful; and raising our fists to fight Him would never even cross our minds.