Fear and All His Friends

“You’re like a potted plant—you take your roots with you.”

Suddenly I felt like a sturdy, hefty, bright and nourished pillar that someone could turn toward and say “look at that, doesn’t she just brighten up this space?”

After years of everything feeling temporary, transient, impermanent, her words made me realize that no matter how much I’ve moved, it doesn’t mean I haven’t been growing roots, or haven’t been healthy and thriving.

Fear is a liar. He knows nothing about gardening, but he memorized a few words in a Botany textbook and tried to spin them to convince me he is an absolute expert.

Call him out. That’s my advice to you about Fear when he shows up and goes on endless rants that try to shut you down and make you feel helpless and hopeless. Bring someone else into the conversation and call him out, find out if he knows what he’s talking about. Because chances are when bring some other people to the table they’re going to see through the facade and they’re going to prove it’s absolute nonsense. Fear is going to be the loser, the one walking away in defeat.

I’ve been carrying this lie around for so long now, and Fear had me convinced it was true. I kept thinking I’m just wanderer—a flaky nomad and people with white picket fences and strollers just see me passing by and think “Oh, that poor drifter, there she goes again rootless and barren…” 

But then I got sick of it. So I grabbed Fear and drug him by the ears to one of those white picket fences. We rallied the neighbors and called his bluff. That’s when they called me a potted plant: growing, healthy, rooted, but still moving. And then Fear ran back home crying; his friend Comparison had to scoot along too.

Sometimes you just need to rally, to grab someone else, to stop listening to the thing that sounds true, but that shuts you down leaves you voiceless, helpless, restless. Pull someone else in to say the thing you cannot see, the thing that Fear and his friends just keep talking circles around.

Because Fear wants you to believe he’s smarter than you, wiser than you, more experienced and better equipped. But really he’s just long-winded and loud-mouthed. He knows most of the headlines, but none of the substance.

Don’t let Fear dominate the conversation, be the center-of-attention, steal the show, stifle the party. Fear and his friends are the house guests I give you permission to always show the door. And if and when they’re rowdy, grab some friends, some experts, (maybe some moms with strollers) and kick them to the curb. If for a second you see him or hear him speaking up, he has overstayed his welcome, go tell him his time is up.

 

 

 

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California: Letting Go of the Blueprints

California.

I thought it would be all sunshine, warmth, orange-hued days and lightweight laughter.

But the air had a chill, the clouds were heavy with rain, the days thick with prayers and an ache for something more.

From the moment the plane drifted below the clouds and I saw the sun setting over the land full of big dreams, I thought to myself, maybe this is a place I can believe for the impossible.

Tucked away in those California mountains was a cabin. For a few days, I found myself squeezed in between its walls with a group of strangers. A million times I had been in this same scenario, but with different paint colors and couches; rooms with strangers, Bibles in our laps, hoping that after a few days we would have a handful of good stories and memories to look back and remember when God sifted through some dirt in our hearts to remind us of the gold.

But something felt different. Something felt entirely offbeat inside my chest that first morning after breakfast and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. I’ll never forget my feet running up the stairs, my knees hitting that carpet, my hands clenching into fists. God shook me right in those first few hours. There was a moment coming—something that was going to change everything.

That night God showed up in a way that only He could. He came barreling through that basement door, arms full of everything we were so desperately in need of.

Sometimes I think we are like children with Santa Claus, terrified that if we go He isn’t going to know where to find us. We’re so tied to plans, people, callings, dreams, years, the things we’ve spent using to build our lives that we can’t imagine what God would do if we were shoved inside of a basement somewhere unfamiliar. Because we have all these plans we’ve made and promises we are begging Him to keep.

But He did more than I expected, asked, was even prepared for. And right there, just after I let out a sigh of relief, thinking He had emptied His arms and I’d seen it all, He leaned against the wall and whispered the very thing I was least expecting. He pulled out from behind His back the best thing, the only thing that could have knocked the wind completely out me.

And all the years and months of fighting, drowning, begging, came racing across the country and crashing right there at my feet. He put the nail in the coffin of the thing that has nearly caused me to lose it all, over and over again. When I looked at it, in my tiny hands, I realized how many times I’ve gone searching for those same words in the office of principals, guidance counselors, in the arms of my parents, sister, friends. God said to me the only thing that ever really mattered to me, the thing that has driven me from birth, in every decision I’ve ever made. Its kept me from sleeping at night, made me terrified and paralyzed to make nearly every choice. In a simple little sentence, He said the thing that I’ve looked for in the voice of every other person I’ve ever known.

I realized at that moment that until God Himself spoke the words I needed to hear, and I finally heard them from Him, I would never be full, never be entirely free.

When I left for California, I figured that a southern girl out west was going to feel unknown, off-balance, a little out of place. But isn’t that just like God? To stick you in the middle of strangers and show you just how much He knows you, sees you, can say the thing you need to hear in the most unexpected and hidden place?

It was about letting go of plans, people, and the way I’ve held God to His promises. The way that I tell Him that He has to do it the way I always expected. That He has to shout those words through a certain microphone, say them through a certain mouth, in a certain place, through a set of circumstances. That He has to fulfill it how I always thought He should. Humbled and grateful, that He didn’t do it the way I demanded. That I didn’t get those words the way I expected, begged for, from the people that I argued with or demanded them from. That when I stopped fighting, clawing, stomping my feet, painting the town with instructions on how to fulfill my hopes and dreams, that God picked me up and put me on a plane and did it his way, a better way.

When I got home, slept in my bed, filled up a coffee mug, drove around this town, I heard Him whisper again: let go of the blueprints.

Because when our hands are filled with rolls of our blueprints, we can’t hold any of His. We can’t see the thing He wants to build. And what I’m starting to realize is how often His plans have elements of the things I’ve asked for, prayed for, hoped for, but His blueprints are so much bigger, more efficient, better planned than mine could ever be.

California, it was the place I thought maybe I could learn to believe for the impossible and the place where He did exactly that.

 

 

 

 

Heartbreak Was Inevitable

My back slid down the wall of that hotel lobby, tears streaming down my face. The knife in my heart dug deeper as I stared at the monotonous opening and closing of the elevator doors.

It was happening all over again.

The grief of repeated patterns. The pain of I’ve been here before and somehow I’ve gotten stuck reliving this same nightmare.

I started replaying every single detail of choices that got me to that filthy floor. I started plugging plans in place of the variables and wondering if there was any way to change the outcome of what was about to happen.

Every option led me to the conclusion that complete heartbreak was the inevitable end result.

I peeled myself off the ground, limped to the elevator, wiped my face, and forced myself to press the button. I shoved all those painful feelings into my pockets. I guess I was saving them for a day when I had more time and fewer eyes watching.

My pockets were already stuffed with things from the months before, it was all piling up.

There is a hallway that holds the truth about desire and wisdom. It was where I learned how to sink my feet into the painful choice of not doing the thing I wanted to do for the sake of doing the thing I knew I needed to do.

Because there is an ever-present cry inside of me that tells me to avoid heartache at all costs.

-It tells me to storm into the room and say what I want to say.
-It tells me to avoid the hard conversations.
-It tells me to hold on longer than I should.
-It tells me that I deserve better than crying on the floor of a hotel lobby, to make choices that might leave someone else crying there instead.
-It tells me to put myself first.

That was how I knew heartbreak was my inevitable result because every other option would have led to someone else, besides me, crying on that floor.

Am I willing to break my own heart for someone else? It’s a question that I wrestled with in the days that followed. I continued to be confronted with the reality that there are some pains so much worse than not getting what you want, one of them is getting what you wanted only to realize you sacrificed every other good thing along the way.

So while I wanted my prayers to be answered, justice to be served, my heartbreak to end—I wasn’t willing to get those things by breaking everyone else around me.

We live in a world that tells us we deserve happiness and “better”, but really I’ve stopped asking what I deserve and just started choosing love. Sometimes that means crawling to the elevator silently, sometimes it means having a hard and truthful conversation knowing it may break my heart if they walk away. But it has to mean putting others first—even if it results in not getting my way or getting the thing I thought I wanted.

Throughout these months I have been unloading my pockets. I’ve been pulling out all the things I stuffed in there: the words, the laughter, the tears, the things I didn’t say, the prayers, the timing, the day on the couches, questions that only God might ever have answers to.

I have to be honest, I find that there has been no gold medal waiting for me. There has been no phone call from that hotel praising my “selfless act”. Many mornings I wake up, look at the scattered contents and say, “I’m not really sure where to put it all, what exactly the point of this was.” Nevertheless, there’s settledness in me that stays, it is present during my morning coffee and on my afternoon drives.

And isn’t that the great thing about love? That even when it breaks us, it builds us in such a way that we find ourselves steadier, settled, and willing to look at those scattered contents again? That even if we can’t understand it all, even if there are no gold medals, and even if no one saw the limping to the elevator, holding our tongue, or the hard conversation, that we eventually show up with something in our hands and say “it hurts, but I’ve got something to tell, something to give away”. I think that’s the gold. I think that’s the medal. I think the fact that we keep learning, keep showing up, keep unloading and trying again. I think that’s actually the point. That love shows up with a story to tell; that it says, I’ve learned what it means to give my heart for others and to show others what that means, even if I’m still limping. I think there’s so much gold in that.

Heartbreak isn’t the worst thing, I promise you that, but it isn’t easy and sometimes it is an inevitable result. Crying in hotel lobbies, well, that might just be for me. But love? That’s for us all. If we keep showing up, keep unloading our stuff, we will realize we’ve got more room for it than we ever thought possible.

 

 

 

My Problem with Perfection

As someone who has struggled with perfectionism, I started realizing about a month ago I am well on my way to ulcers and wrinkles if something doesn’t change.

I’ve been at a crossroads. I’m on the path to what could actually turn out to be my version of failure.

As someone who takes great pride in her academic career, I’ve met my match. I found a class that just might break my streak of success.

Not only that, I recently ended up at a spa with a lady who swore she understood something about skin and within a week I looked like a pepperoni pizza. I found myself bathing my face in apple cider vinegar, wondering about the meaning of life and if anyone could love someone who now smelled like rotting tree bark.

I woke up with the world’s most depressing thoughts on Valentine’s Day, which was totally abnormal for me because I love Valentine’s Day—like seriously love it.

So, I came home and put Maroon 5 on and started screaming it at the top of my lungs whilst wearing the manliest basketball shorts you’ve ever seen. Because in the interest of full disclosure, what happens when I am in the comfort of my own home is about as far away from perfection as one can get.

My struggle is that I need people (and even myself) to believe one thing—even if that one thing isn’t the biggest chunk of my reality and even if that thing isn’t my favorite part of the day. Because my actual favorite part of the day was those stupid basketball shorts and screaming in horrible harmony with Adam Levine, and eating wretched reduced fat Cheez-Its. But that’s probably not the thing I’m going to invite people into. I’m likely going to invite people into the less ridiculous, less weird, not as embarrassing version of my life because my name is Ashlin and I struggle with perfectionism.

But if I do poorly in a class, fail to eat a balanced diet, wear my dad’s clothes for pajamas, or have bad skin, I need to figure out a way to make that not the end of the world. Because making those things the beginning or end of anything makes them a level of importance they shouldn’t be. It makes them idolatry. It makes them more important than God’s heart, my vulnerability, my willingness to be honest about what my life actually is and what it isn’t.

So, I’m trying to figure out these days how not to throw out discipline, effort, excellence, while also knowing that sometimes you have just got to put on a sweatshirt that comes to your knees and have bad hair. Sometimes you’ve just got to let go of the GPA, hit submit on the assignment, and go give out-loud advice to the lady in the Hallmark movie who is about to ruin her life by chasing down that emotionally detached man in the ugly sweater vest. There’s a rhythm to this whole discipline and grace thing and I’m trying to grab the hand of God these days and ask Him to teach it to me. Step by step I am learning and perfectionism is lessening.

I Almost Took a Vow of Singleness at Starbucks But it Made My Sister Cry.

I like to be in control.

I have been told that at the age of two-years-old I marched up to my Dad and his friend Stanley and informed them I would like for them to paint my bedroom for our new house blue instead of pink. It didn’t matter that the walls were already painted, I wanted a choice. At two years old.

They found it hilarious. It was the story told over and over again.

I was never afraid to ask for what I wanted.

So, it was hard when I hit a quarter-life crisis (it’s a thing) and had a sudden collision with reality that I have very little if any, control over most of my life. I handled it so well that I had a temporary bout of insanity in the middle of a Starbucks.

My hands were flailing as I was taking my sister down one of my long-winded trails. This one was about how maybe I could choose to be one of those people who never wants to get married. You can just choose to want that, can’t you? 

I had developed this whole incredibly odd theory that I could convince God to take my desire for marriage away from me. It sounded entirely noble (at least in my head). I had laid out in this very logical argument that, for the sake of God’s Kingdom and because the Apostle Paul wrote some killer stuff on it, I could just decide that I had no desire to ever get married (even if I did). I could decide to change that.

That dear girl. My poor sister, with her sad blue eyes and her newly pregnant belly, just looked at me with such compassion. But she knew I was perfectly serious. And she knew I would be the person to stick with something until the end of time if I decided it. So she just said something along the lines of “I’m going to pray you change your mind. Not because a life of singleness is wrong, but because I don’t think that’s actually what you want.”

She’s good, that girl with the soft hair and truth-filled words. But I was determined, I was blue bedroom determined (and you can ask Stanley, I do not joke about such things).

I told her that I couldn’t make any promises to her, but I would hold off my vow of permanent singleness for a little bit longer to see if her prayers “worked”.

Because as much as I wanted to walk out of that Starbucks as the next self-proclaimed Mother Teresa, you cannot make a life-altering vow when your beautiful pregnant sister is about to weep into her Frappuccino. 

Driving in my car, it took about two minutes before I realized I had completely and utterly lost my mind. I pulled off at an exit and sat there looking at a large Target sign and told God I had no idea what was happening to me. It took only a few seconds for Him to show up.

And there it was, the ugly and raw truth:

I had just recently experienced another failed almost relationship. So, choosing permanent singleness was going to be my way of not choosing that guy back. This felt like the 487th time this century I had experienced this whole not being chosen thing. I was so tired of this repetitive cycle. I decided to make a statement to men of the earth: I was deciding to forever choose none of them.

Yes, it was slightly insane. On the crazy scale of 1-10, it falls somewhere past 12.

Because of course, this falls under the assumption that all (or any) of the men of the world actually know and/or care that I’m not choosing them.

It also assumes that all men should be blamed for my Lifetime saga story: The Girl Who Clearly Needs to Find Men at Places Other Than Christian Churches or Organizations: A Seventy-Six Part Series. 

Still working on that title.

But what was most amazing about my quarter-life crisis/temporary bout of insanity was that it took less than five minutes to have it completely dismantled.

Between the teary eyes of my sister, her prayers, and the time it took me to get to that exit, God had already convinced me to let go of what might have been the most insane idea I’ve had thus far.

Because God can dismantle our hardest heart and our biggest battle in minutes. Seconds. He can take the thing that you’re so determined is true, right, set in stone and he can rip it apart before you blink.

Because there is something inside of us that knows that the pain we sit in is not where we are meant to stay. We know when we find ourselves fighting, making excuses, pushing away, that’s not what we actually want. There is something inside all of us that knows when we go on the defense that it’s because something is not as it should be and we need someone bigger than us to step in.

So when you come to a fork in the road, where your pain gives you a choice, a choice to take control and “fix it” yourself, or to let God lead the way: I hope you realize your way to “fix it” is probably just as dumb as my idea to flippantly become a self-proclaimed nun who wanted to make her vows inside of a Starbucks.

Because your heart is worth more than the quick things you want to decide in your anger and pain. Your life is worth more than the solutions and blueprints you can draw in your minutes of venting and frustration.

If there’s one thing I have learned, it is that my worst decisions have often been made out of my deepest moments of pain. Whenever I’m about to make a choice, I have to check myself and ask, is there something below the surface here that is aching or searching for more? Do I feel lack? Am I trying to fill something on my own? Am I trying to take control? Do I think I’m better at working out my life than God?

Not just in this area of my life, but in trying to figure out the next steps, the next job, whatever it may be. I have to stop and ask myself, am I deciding from a place of pain, lack, fear?

Get someone in your corner.

That’s the other thing I would tell you. Have someone in your corner who is going to cry with you (or for you), tell you that even if you make the dumbest decision of your life they are going to stick it out with you. But pick a person who is going to tell you that you’re driving like a fool and you need to hand over that steering wheel.

Don’t try to fix it. Don’t try to plan a path around the pain. 

Every path I’ve ever tried to plan around the pain has led me somewhere even darker, harder, more disastrous.

Get people in your corner. Hand over the steering wheel. Realize that God can dismantle your heart, your head, your plans in seconds if you just hand them over. All the things that you’re confused about, the disappointment, the frustration. Let it go. Stop thinking you know better than God. Pull over the car and let the thing go.

Your life is worth more than the plans you can make. Your heart is worth more than the quick-fix solutions you will create. Mother Teresa wasn’t made in a Starbucks. God can still be trusted and he is the best driver on the path of pain.

 

Disclaimer: this story took place many moons ago, my sister is not pregnant again.

 

 

Because Maybe the Other Shoe Drops, Maybe it Doesn’t

You know what I’m learning? There’s no symphony that starts playing when the good stuff shows up.

And God answers prayers that I longed for, but never even knew how to pray.

The old songs and places won’t always break your heart; and there’s no such thing as too much love.

You also don’t have to balance all the good stuff with equal amounts of hard stuff. For every good thing you see in someone, you don’t have to find something wrong. And you should really stop expecting that on the other end of every conversation. Not everyone sitting across from you is finding things to fix (if they are, you should reevaluate where you’re sitting). 

Balance is a word that sounds so noble, healthy, mature, but has been a demon that’s kept me awake at night. You said too much. You should have said more. Whatever it is, balance has always tried to replace the word enough. But enough doesn’t mean equal and/or perfect.

Enough is just enough. Enough is what we are. There is freedom in enough. Enough is the love you can rest in when you don’t have to have all the right words, fill the silence, do anything other than just exist. Find that space and fight for it, even if it scares you.

And God? Well, He is the solo occupant of the space labeled perfect. To be called enough by the One in that chair? I’ll take that. To know that He’s got people in his corner who will also believe that about me? That tells me all the fear, the worry, the demons of balance, comparison, and insecurity are a waste of my God-given time.

I’m starting to think I’ve blamed a lot of my pain and anxiety on God, when the truth is that I am the one who makes this whole thing complicated. It’s like I’ve been waiting for some symphony, some permission slip, for God to pop out from behind a door and tell me it’s finally okay to celebrate the good. The truth is that the breath in my lungs is that permission slip. But that need to be balanced tells me to wait, to hold back, to see if another shoe is going to drop and to expect pain to show up on the other end of the scale.

But then there’s hope, she’s a fierce rival of balance. She knows just how to spin you freely into placing all your bets on the good stuff.

Because maybe the other shoe drops, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you rip off the other shoe you’re wearing and just realize that being barefoot but brave was always a better way to live anyway.

Loneliness, God, and the Nonsense We Make Up

Five years.

That’s how long it’s been since I stopped eating refined sugar and white flour. The moment the doctor told me this could affect you having children, that was the moment it all changed for me.

I cried to you in the bathroom floor. We went on drives and I ate horrible sugar-free candy that I eventually figured out wasn’t a worthy substitute. Every time someone offered me birthday cake I would think of little hands, feet, first birthdays, and vacations to the mountains. I thought of how much I could regret never holding them, snuggling them, I learned to force myself to politely decline.

Twenty-five years. 

That’s how long it’s been without a honorable and proper date. I remember the moment I sat on that trampoline at twelve years old and decided not to settle. I told you that I didn’t want to spend my young adult years searching for a sentimental fairytale if it meant missing out on a life that you had for me.

I cried to you in the bathroom floor. We went on drives and I would sit in parking lots and watch the sunset with you. When all my friends posted on their AIM away messages and MySpace profiles about their boyfriends, I would sit on that green carpet in that big brick building and tell you that I knew it would be worth waiting.

Five months.

That’s how long it’s been since I lived alone. I came home every night to that apartment and you were there. I would sit on my couch, eat dinner, and I could feel you sitting next to me. You were there when I put up my Christmas tree, nearly flooded the bathroom, learned how to make that amazing soup.

I cried to you in the kitchen floor. We went on more drives and I became so content with living alone. Those cold months were some of the happiest moments of my life even though circumstances were tough and I was being tested in some of the hardest ways I’ve ever experienced.

All this time.

I thought by now I would have mastered and overcome the feelings of loneliness.

But when I slide on another bridesmaid dress, rock another newborn baby, refuse another slice of birthday cake, watch another year go by on the calendar my humanity does not lessen and my loneliness does not subside.

I still cry to you in my bedroom floor. We still go on drives and sit in parking lots. I am aware that you see me. I still hear you speak. You promise me that you will never leave me, but you don’t promise me that overcoming this feeling produces a certain kind of reward.

Five minutes.

That’s how long it takes for you to silence the war inside my head.

To tell me that you never said the right person shows up when we stop feeling lonely or stop looking. You never wrote that anywhere inside your book. It was humans who took someone’s experience and made a Christian theology/ridiculous piece of advice to defend and explain why someone else’s loneliness hasn’t been taken away.

You tell me that you’re not afraid of my feelings, not afraid of my loneliness and won’t punish me for it by withholding good things. You aren’t waiting until I get over it. You aren’t up there tapping your watch thinking, I could really do something if this girl would just stop whining. 

You remind me that I’ve never once seen you address loneliness with a harsh response. That I’ve never seen you correct someone for it, be disappointed in it, threatened by it. I’ve never seen you angered by it. You ask me when I’ve seen you withhold from the lonely or the barren. You ask me when I have seen you punish them for acknowledging the state that they are in. You remind me instead that you are the God who says that perfect religion is for people to take care of the widow and the orphan. You are the God who first addressed loneliness, saw it and said it was not good. You made it a priority, stuck it at the top of the list.

Never once were you the God who punished it. Withheld from those in it or corrected those who felt it. You tell me again not to fear it, not to try and escape it. You will not punish it.

The only one afraid of it, ashamed of it, punishing it, and threatened by it is me.

“What will you tell them?”

That’s the thing you ask me. What will I tell those that come to me, who ask about what I’ve learned in this season of loneliness. I laugh and then immediately start to cry.

“I’ll tell them to fight it out for themselves. I’ll tell them not to believe all the things people tell them about getting out of it. That it’s not about getting out. That it’s not something to fear. I’ll tell them it’s a feeling, it’s just a feeling, and those are not things we should fear because they are not facts. I’ll tell them that they can’t stay there forever, that they absolutely won’t. But I’ll tell them they can’t always outrun it.

I will tell them that God isn’t intimidated, mad, or withholding because of their loneliness. That He’s got them and that He is going to do something right there in the middle of it. He’s not waiting for them to master or gold medal this thing. I’ll tell them He’s a God of grace—and despite what you’ve been told, He’s not waiting and expecting us to figure this thing out on our own.”