Make Better Plans + Forgive Yourself

Not once in my childhood did I ever daydream of running away and joining the circus.

But when I reached the shoreline, felt the burning heat of summer, the sticky sand and salt clinging to my skin, I started to long for a haphazard kind of life.

Because I realized I still don’t know how to stand steady in front of eyes and a mouth that don’t speak the same thing.

Sometimes in the mirror, I realize those eyes and that mouth belong to me.

Tattered denim and golden hour covering our shoulders, someone recently told me that my face often betrays me first. It always has.

No one sets out to be a liar. Little girls don’t daydream of becoming personified apologies.

Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. This becomes the constant word of someone who makes plans and breaks them. Because good intentions don’t make for worthy plans or promises. And poetic sentiments are sometimes better left on the movie screen. But if and when you put all your best words on the table, that doesn’t mean you have to sit with them forever. Sometimes you leave them there. End scene. Cue credits. Go home.

I wish I’d learned this sooner.

Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. It’s time to sit in the word that you must finally say to yourself. Apologize to the one person you have not. For the fact that you did not believe you are beautiful. That you pulled and tamed your curls. That you covered your face. That you bit your tongue. That you hid your tears. That you let the mark of a red pen define you. That you do all of these things still.

It’s time to say “I’m sorry” to the one person you haven’t forgiven. For never getting it quite right. You. For being too much, too little—or some combination that jammed the lock. That kept you from the places your biggest dreams planned you would go.

If you want, you can finally make better plans, worthy promises. You can walk away from the table of good intentions, poetic sentiment, the plans that turned you into a personified apology. Plans change and you didn’t always know who you were and who you would become when you made them.

I’m sorry to the girl who is still trying to show up for old plans and the promises she had to break. The circus probably won’t take you and running away has yet to save you. You’re the most beautiful you’ve ever been and it’s okay to hold the brokenness in your hands and not try to fix it. I’m sorry that you’ve apologized around the world, but never where it started. That your good intentions and broken plans were all because your mouth betrayed your eyes. Your head betrayed your heart. You did not believe that you were the right combination and that you could go where that little girl dreamed of.

You’re the most beautiful you’ve ever been and it’s okay to hold the brokenness in your hands and not try to fix it.

 

 

 

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I Finally Stopped Running. Then My Car Got Towed.

When I first showed up to that little town, I had handfuls of fear and a back-pocket plan of escape.

I had stubbornly decided to never hang another picture on the wall. I was terrified of ever planting my feet, of ever letting my heart get rooted again.

For those few years, the walls stayed bare. I slept on a borrowed bed. I tried to avoid anything that looked steady, shut my heart off to anything that looked stable or strong.

I remember when a set of brown eyes showed up in my driveway that summer morning, I walked outside barefoot and waited for the words that I knew were coming. I never cried. My heart didn’t break. I wondered why it didn’t hurt more when I threw away the sentimental things. I mourned nothing more than the realization I’d said a lot of things I didn’t really mean.

Honestly, I think he knew that everything in my life was temporary. When he walked away with his head hanging, he knew that I was on the run. That I was just looking for a nice guy to drive my getaway car.

“I never know where you are.”

 That’s become a sentence that hundreds of people across hundreds of miles have said to me. Mostly in a joking, but also in a curious way because the geographical location of my residence has changed so much in my twenties.

But if he could have, I think that brown-eyed guy would have used that to sum up everything and then called it a day. Because what would become geographically true was already internally true. He never knew. I never knew. No one ever knew.

As a writer, I’ve spent most of my life speaking in metaphors.

I started doing it as a teenager, in person, and in letters, and I never quite figured out how to stop. I mastered the art of never really saying what I wanted because I could spin it and hide behind an eloquent turn of phrase. And I didn’t even realize how desperately trapped in it I felt until a few weeks ago.

I stood on the sidewalk as I watched a stranger hook his tow truck to my little silver car and pull it out of the mess I’d got myself into. I don’t think I will ever be able to fully explain the feeling that overwhelmed me as I watched it come out of the place where I’d gotten it stuck.

I stifled the cry I could feel welling up in the deepest part of me. It wasn’t about the car (because again, everything is a metaphor). It was about being in my sister’s college town, the girl I’ve become over the last ten years, the past few weeks, being stuck and finally getting free.

I drove to a nearby diner and held back ten years of tears as I remembered the last time I’d been there. I remembered being sixteen years old, lying in my sister’s dorm room, pitch black, skirting around the things in my heart. We spoke in metaphor, ironically using cars. She humored me because she knew I was terrified to say what I actually wanted to say.

I realized I’d been using getaway cars in one-way or another my entire life. And when that brown-eyed guy walked away, it didn’t hurt because I’d built the whole thing out of pretty metaphors and things that sounded really nice. But there was nothing on the walls. I’d never said or done anything of substance because deep down, I knew I was never going to stay.

A few weeks ago I bought a picture to hang on the wall. I did it without hesitation.

I turned around to realize there were some other good and steady things that I once ran away from. I ran straight toward them.

I stopped solely speaking in metaphors. I no longer wonder if I’m saying things I really mean.

God knows where we are.

That’s the thing I’m figuring out. Across all the miles and after all the running. He’s always been in the getaway car, trying to let me know that I haven’t gotten all that far.

Someday I hope you get tired of waking up to blank walls. I hope that fear and pain are no longer drawing your maps. I hope you find good and steady things that make you fight the urge to run away.

That you laugh when you find out God put the GPS on His idea of home and you’ve just been going in circles all along. That He doesn’t let us get too far. That He doesn’t get mad, but He sometimes lets us run out of gas (or get towed).

That the brown-eyed guy did you a favor when he handed you back the keys.

That someday someone asks you a question that terrifies every bone in your body. But that, for a minute, you lay the metaphors down and say the least eloquent things you can possibly say.

I hope someday you rip up your best plans for escape.

 

 

How to Catch the Light

I hope the fireflies show up for you.

Like they did for us when our feet ran through the damp grass of my grandparent’s backyard on summer evenings. When we reached the walkway, the little pebbles would dig into our heels. I still have a scar on my left hand from the branch that snapped during one of our adventures through the woods.

I used to think that their back porch would always be there, that those same faces always around the table to greet me, playing cards in hand. That I would spend all my years running through and slamming that screen door.

I sometimes still wonder if the fireflies wait for us there, think we’re coming back and scoop them up in our little mason jars. But time doesn’t stand still, the light of fireflies fade, and not everyone who used to sit around that table could still be there if we went back.

But I’ve been realizing even after all those people are long gone, the thing that will be stuck with me, is all the light they left. Those are the fireflies still hanging around when we’re all grown up and the tables have changed.

What I remember most is the way those people loved me, the way they kept me laughing. I remember how my Great Uncle took us outside and bent down close, taught us how to gently guide the light into those jars. He taught how to hold onto it, but then how to set it free. When the world was busy, he stepped outside with barefoot children and taught us how to catch the light.

Last week I met a stranger while buying a book. I laughed harder that day than I have in a long time. We didn’t change the world with political ideologies, theological debates, lengthy equations, chemical experiments. We simply found ourselves laughing over something inconsequential. We left one another with beaming smiles and kind words.

I drove around that night telling God that sometimes I feel like I’ve been missing the point.

Inside of me sits a little girl who remembers standing in the hallway of her elementary school, hearing the whispers of other kids, “Why does she always stare at the ground? Someone told me she was mute.”

I remember learning back then, what I am learning now: I don’t want to waste this voice. Or try to give God the excuse that that using it is harder than it is.

Because really, I think it is just fighting to become brave enough to open our mouths. It’s just looking up from the ground and saying something kind, something intentional. I don’t want to live with a mouth, voice, a chance and only ever use them when it feels easy or convenient, or when I deemed the opportunity or person worthy of my effort.

Sometimes it takes getting over the hurt, the fear, the things that followed us for years. It’s knowing that value is not always the big things that everyone applauds. Sometimes it is learning how to make someone else feel like they’re funny, interesting, worth listening to, a good storyteller.

It’s just teaching little ones how to catch fireflies. It’s just making a joke with a stranger. It’s just love. Teaching someone else how to catch the light.

Sometimes that seems so small, so insignificant and yet, if that were the case I don’t think it would be so hard. But when confronted with the challenge of loving difficult people, strangers, sometimes even those closest, it’s hard. It’s hard to put down our phones, clear the schedule, say the apology, reach for the hug, sit with someone in grief, knock on their door, be inconvenienced, feel awkward. If it was so small, or easy, more people would do it and the world would be different.

It matters. And every time you do the thing that feels so incredibly uncomfortable and insignificant it changes them and it changes you.

One day you wake up and you realize that saving your words and efforts for bigger and better things, waiting for more, waiting for that one big bright moment was just a trap to stop you from all the light surrounding you right here and right now. It just takes catching all the little moments right there in jars. Because all of the little chances, if you grab them, make a great big light.

 

 

 

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.