Sunday, December 28, 2014

Best of 2014

It's come time for my yearly revisit of events, travels, and lessons learned-- more as a series of personal touchstones than anything else (for reference: 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013).

10 Goals I had for 2014:
1. Run a race (10k at the very least). (Didn't make it to a 10k, but I can easily run that far now, and I ran in three official 5k races. So at least I was close!)
2. Change my job situation. (Heck. yes. And what a beautiful change it has been.)
3. Go to a festival again. (If you count Warped Tour, yes, but otherwise, this one will have to roll around to next year.)
4. Write a letter to/have a conversation with at least one of my heroes explaining the impact they had in my life. (Done. Though there are several others who this conversation still needs to happen with.)
5. Find some practical ways to combat recurring anxiety episodes. (It seems a little optimistic, in hindsight, to put this on the list as a finite, one year goal. It's going to be a lifetime process, I suspect.)
6. Volunteer charity work through church at least once. (Yes. Although not enough, and I want to challenge myself a lot more in this area.)
7. Wear skirts and dresses more. (Done. I wore skirts and dresses more this year than in probably the past 8 years of my life combined, and did so in ways that felt true to who I am.)
8. Read at least one book in the fields of theology or literature purely for learning/academic reasons. (Done. Though specifying learning/academic as opposed to pleasure seems pretty odd also, since the line is so blurred-- learning IS fun.)
9. Visit a place I've never been before. (I think I was in a total of three or four states this year that I've never been in my life before. Success!)
10. Grow my hair out. (My hair is the longest it's been since 2011, and the healthiest it's been in my life. So that's cool.)

10 Significant Events of 2014:
1. Traveling to Florida and meeting my twin nieces for the first time
2. Being present to photograph and share in the deep joy of my friend Ruth's wedding
3. Hiking 15 miles in 24 hours with Jordan to celebrate our first wedding anniversary
4. Stepping out of my food service job and into a new role with NewReleaseTuesday and everything that entailed– a crazy amazing weekend covering the KLOVE awards, spending time with my bosses Kevin and Marcus face to face for the first time, getting to know and working with our awesome Nashville interns

5. Traveling up north to spend a week with my friend Liz, driving, photographing, adventuring
6. Moving into our beautiful riverside apartment
7. The exhausting, wonderful insanity of Dove Awards week 2014 with Sarah and Caitlin

8. The annual CleanPlace Moot in Colorado, three days talking and brainstorming and drinking coffee and dreaming in a house with many of my dearest friends. Correspondingly, the actual forum CleanPlace itself transitioning out and the community shifting to Facebook and face to face contexts
9. Fall visit from three siblings and my two adopted brothers from college
10. The Triple Christmas of 2014: three uniquely beautiful Christmas celebrations in three different cities with three uniquely beautiful groups of people

10 Random Places I Visited in 2014:
1. Honeymoon Island in Florida, carpeted in white sand and rimmed by frothy aquamarine waves
2. The shores of Lake Michigan during a chilly sunrise
3. A dressing room at a club venue painted neon green and purple with a fish bowl fastened to the wall
4. Michael Tait's house overlooking the smoldering autumn hills of Tennessee
5. Little Pella, Iowa, dripping with Dutch immigrant culture and old school American farmers' sensibilities
6. Behind the stage at the Grand Ole Opry, weaving around road cases to get to a makeshift press room
7. The hiking trails of Garden of the Gods in Colorado late at night, taking pictures of the sky, listening to the locals drum and juggle fire in celebration of the full moon
8. A quirky, tiny diner filled with unconventional art, tucked away in a Chattanooga neighborhood
9. An arena stage in Louisville, Kentucky, watching the arena fill up with thousands of attendees for a tour headlined by Skillet
10. A tiny, ancient graveyard deep in the forests of the Appalachian mountains, left by early settlers to the Gatlinburg area

The 10 Songs that were the Most Special to Me in 2014:
1. "My Dear" by Matty Mullins
2. "This Is Your Life" by Switchfoot
3. "Room to Breathe" by You Me At Six
4. "This is Gospel" by Panic! At The Disco
5. "Hope in Front of Me" by Danny Gokey
6. "I'll Be OK" by Nothing More
7. "Diamonds" by Manafest
8. "In My Room" by Thousand Foot Krutch
9. "Unbroken" by Disciple
10. "What it Costs" by Switchfoot

10 Miscellaneous Things I Learned in 2014:
1. The most significant thing I learned comes from my most significant mistake this year: it never, ever works to make ourselves smaller and dimmer than we are in order to avoid making others uncomfortable. Repressing our own peculiar light may mean we don't hurt anyone's eyes, but it also means we can't light the way for anyone either. We have to somehow be who we are. Even if it means risking others' dislike, discomfort, and disapproval. I have spent way too much time attempting to hide, at great loss to myself and great unfairness to everyone around me.
2. It is more important than I'd ever realized to be honest when we have needs. Saying "I'm fine" when I'm definitely not has deep, relationship-undermining, long term effects. Allowing others to be aware of our needs and giving them the chance to meet them is also a special kind of trust and grace.
3. Success can isolate just as easily as failure. In either case, it is radically important to have people to remind you who you are.
4. Forgiveness without first admitting the depth of our wound is incomplete and cowardly. Forgiveness is not "you didn't do anything wrong." It's "I see and feel to its full extent what you've done, and I love and value you no less." The exact same thing applies to accepting forgiveness from others, myself, and God. Sometimes owning up to my own mistakes and hurtful behaviors is the only way to really grasp the reality that I am loved anyway.
5. I have long believed that offering trust before it is earned is a kind of gift we can give, a part of love, and I still believe so. But this has to be tempered with wisdom. Not everyone should be loved by receiving the gift of complete trust; that's not something everyone can, or should, carry. It's not a lack of love to offer trust weighted with wisdom.
6. What I envy and compare myself to most in others' lives is likely what I am idolizing in my own. Comparison is one of the surest roads to self-destruction I have yet found.
7. Our entire lives and philosophies will be shaped by what we give ultimate authority, by what we assign the greatest value. If physical appearance or success or the approval of others is ranked highest, for example, we will reorder everything in our lives to fit that value system– to the point of hurting others and destroying ourselves. In my story, the perpetual journey of my life is to set Jesus Christ in the position of highest value. Nothing else I personally have ever desperately placed there has led me to life.
8. I don't have to categorize my life and then force every action to fall in line with preset labels. I'm not risking losing independent adventurer status by enjoying an afternoon in cooking an epic meal. I'm not betraying my love of edgy indie music by liking a mainstream pop song. The question when evaluating a potential course of action should never be "does this line up with the right labels?" If it's a generally healthy, beneficial thing I should do it because it's good and I like it, not because I am compelled to do so in order to fit a certain image.
9. It is absolutely, completely impossible for me to make everyone happy, and it wouldn't be the best thing for them even if I could. Sometimes the most helpful thing I can do for a person is to simply allow them to not like me without desperately trying to change their mind (that rings of self-centered control, not love, anyway).
10. I can't hold others responsible to act in accordance with things I've never told them. If I'm unwilling to admit to a particular sensitive area or something bugging me or an ugly moment of my past, I can't blame them for not acting gently in those areas. Honesty is a kind of responsibility.
Bonus number 11: Sometimes I learn the most about relationships when community is hard to come by. Isolation is never intended to be a longterm way of life, but it can certainly be a rather effective spiritual bootcamp when present for a season.

10 Goals for 2015:
1. Set better emotional boundaries; recognize both my limits and my strengths more, and stop hiding from both.
2. Run a half marathon.
3. Interview another band in my top 5 all-time favorites (Skillet, Switchfoot, Disciple, Red, Anberlin-- I've got two down, three to go).
4. Answer emails faster. Seriously, I make way too many excuses for this, and spend way too much time second guessing my replies.
5. Read at least 25 books. I have been extremely intellectually lax these past two years, and even be it in the form of fiction, I need to be engaging concepts and ideas more.
6. Finish at least one major writing project, be it a poem series, a short story/novella, a blog series, a song, etc. This seems like aiming low given how prolific I once was, but I feel like I've run from any personal writing for reasons I can't fully articulate, and I need to revisit it.
7. Find some place to volunteer consistently. Scattered, noncommittal gifts of time are often half-hearted. I want to find a place to invest myself more fully.
8. Be more honest, more human, in my writing.
9. Go to a con. Be it Comic Con or DragonCon, I feel like I'm long overdue to attempt this particular experience. Con-going friends, take note. ;-)
10. Be unapologetic about the things I like and dislike. Which is not to abandon discretion or sensitivity; simply to apologize for being who I actually am less.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

My Materialistic Christmas

I have a confession to make: this Christmas season, I have been that heinous materialist everyone rails against. It crept in so subtly for me, cloaked as caring, that I didn't notice it until I'd had several meltdowns over gifts. I'm not good at giving gifts. It's not that I'm awful at it; I like to think the presents I give usually fall somewhere within the realm of what is desired by the recipient. But I know people who seem to have a natural, beautiful, warm-hearted grace in the way they choose things out and give them to others, free from self-centered anxiety, beaming with joy. Unfortunately, I am not that way. I overthink every selection to death, cry over the fact that our already strained budget can't afford more than what feels like shabby knickknacks, and think through all the potential ways the person in question will hate me once they receive my utter failure of a present. I wish I was exaggerating, but I'm not. One night a couple weeks ago I was lying in bed staring into the darkness, fighting back tears, and Jordan asked what was wrong. I gave an answer to the effect of "everything I've bought for people is crap and meaningless and won't impact or affect them at all, and in a year they won't even remember it and no one will know that I love them." Of course it was absurd, and he gently told me so. But it was a while after that conversation that I had the realization with which I opened this post: I am a materialist.
I had fallen into the classic trap of making Christmas about "stuff." In a much more subtle way than many others, perhaps, but in a way equally deadly. I was acting as though my merit as a human being, my place in my family's lives, the acceptability of my efforts at caring, all hinged on what I had bought. I was wrapping up my perception of worthiness in fragile colored paper and ribbon. For those of us who follow the church calendar, today is the third Sunday of Advent, the time of anticipation leading up to celebrating the arrival of our incarnate Christ. A friend challenged me at the beginning to be intentional about how I engage this season, to find something specific to do every day to observe it. One of the things that has resulted is a thought that's been eating away at my uptight materialistic mind games.
I grew up in church hearing this concept that we give gifts at Christmas to remember the fact that Jesus was given to us as the greatest gift. As simplistic as it sounds, I think there's truth in the statement-- although perhaps it's been left alone too soon. I feel like Christ-followers often take it at face value, thinking of the act alone: OK, we are supposed to give things. And then we dismiss it and move on. This year I have begun to feel the weighty importance of not just leaving it at the act of giving itself, but rather to look at what kind of gift it was. The Jewish hope for the arrival of their Messiah was that He would bring material prosperity and circumstantial political power. They wanted Him to bring tangible, visible gifts-- that was how they thought He had to love them. But His love was stranger, wilder, harder than that. He didn't show up bringing an army or economic revolution. He brought Himself. In a dark world teeming with unrest and racial hatred and political instability and a lack of medical technology, He presented Himself as the most vulnerable, unimpressive package imaginable: an infant, confined by cloth, helpless in a feeding trough. Not everyone would understand what He was doing, and He knew it (though at moments later in His life we get glimpses of His deep yearning for it to be otherwise). But He came anyway, with nothing but Himself. That kind of love might not have made the surface level, circumstantial shifts that an oppressed people group hoped for. But it seared the surface of the whole of human history with the peculiar radiance of hope. It marked every dark corner of earthly experience with the achingly brilliant words God is with us. The life offered in complete empty-handed vulnerability became the life that would (from a spiritual and arguably historical perspective as well) have the single most impact of any life in human history. And of course, this is the kind of gift I believe He still gives. My encounters with Him lead me to believe that although we may beg Him for circumstantial reprieves and material successes and even intellectual surety, He doesn't come to us like that. He just comes as Himself. And the promise He gives me, the only one that has ever satisfied me, was never about making these days on the earth's broken skin smoother and softer and shinier. The promise is still God is with you. The promise is still you are not alone. If I am to emulate the Christ this Christmas, to echo this Jewish rabbi who rocked history with His counter-cultural vulnerability, then when I go see my family or engage with my friends I don't need to bring presents. I will, but they're more side effects of an event rather than the event itself (just as there may be moments of circumstantial comfort as a result of Christ's coming into our lives, but that is certainly not the point or even the norm). I just need to bring myself. Vulnerable, messed up, a little too loud about coffee and rock and roll, a little too quiet about everything else, self-absorbed, incomplete, but completely dead-on in love with every single person I see. And I won't do it perfectly and not everyone will get it and maybe one or two people will be disappointed in my lame gift giving skills. But I'm more OK with that when I know it was never about that anyway. It's the cheesy truth of "presence vs. presents," the fact that I could never manufacture anyway what it looks like when souls rub shoulders-- though it rub them raw. Somehow, someway, we are enough-- as we are, no strings attached. Love and deep peace to you all.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A Long Exhale

The trees are thrashing angrily against the sky. I am watching– waiting for them to break down the horizon somehow, for their rage at their dying to finally catalyze change in the Way Things Are.

They've been still for much of the process so far, as pieces of the garments they've known slipped quietly to the floor. It's almost as though they didn't notice they were dying. But the moment has come: they know. And they grieve, as sharp rains lash their newly naked forms, as our backyard river laps sullen and gray at their chilled knees.

They endure this every year, this death of what was to make space for what will be, this slow, solemn exhale. And yet every year it still seems painful for them somehow, to lose so much of their recognizable form, to see their beauty strewn across the ground– to feel exposed.

I want to tell them I understand. I want to tell them there is a poignant, stark grace in their stripped-away forms, the lines of their empty arms reaching for the sky. I want to remind them that next year's coat is coming, but for now there is no dishonor in bearing frost instead of flowers– both are needed in their time. Yes, I want to stand beside them, feel the chill with them, and tell them all these things I am learning myself.

For after all, so many of us are in these seasons, this stripping away, bent between raging at the sky and somber, accepting stillness. So many of us know what it is to lose what we thought made us noteworthy– and so many of us now stand exposed.

But redemption throbs its pulse beneath every frost. Autumn hearts become winter hearts, all clear lines and the nebulous honesty of potential. And then... and then. New life realized.

I'll stand by my backyard trees and breathe out with them. We will weather this winter together.

Monday, September 15, 2014


I have recently started to talk a little bit about the fact that I struggled with a speech handicap as a child.

It seems like a small thing when I type it that way– matter of fact, black on white. But it wasn't a small thing at the time.

My best theory has been for a while now that it stemmed from the fact that my family completely uprooted our lives and moved to a third world country when I was just shy of 2 years old, only to do the same thing 18 months later when we returned to the States. When we first got back from mission work, we spent a stretch of time hopping from house to house, staying with whoever had room– an experience that deeply troubled 3-year-old Mary, who was clingy and insecure. I am told children with speech handicaps often are that way because of some massive life upheaval in the years they're developing speech. I figure this qualifies.

The primary way it manifested was that I couldn't pronounce any "R" sound, and "J" posed significant difficulties. In part because I was aware of the deficiency, I often ended up stuttering or slurring to cover it up. I spoke this way until I was 11 years old.

Imagine this dorktastic mini-human speaking a high percentage of words totally wrong.
11 is old enough to encounter an awful lot of bullying for any child who shows signs of abnormality. I was ridiculed for it so often (by relatives, friends, siblings, even adults on occasion) that I learned very early on not to speak much. I also learned early on the alternative: writing. Every word I was too ashamed to speak got turned around, invested, captured on a page. My expressions were primitive at first, rough, like any child holding a new tool in their hand. But I accelerated, leaning into the words, finding in their potential a way to be weightless. By 11 I was reading Shakespeare and writing my first novel.

But of course that wasn't usually particularly clear to the outside world, a world where I seemed branded as slow and stupid for the fact that I did not speak in public, or if I did, I could not seem to speak correctly. And it weighed on me tremendously.

My parents believed for a while that it was a discipline problem, and found various ways to try to motivate or punish me into speaking correctly. After one such night where it was explained to me that I just wasn't trying hard enough, I locked myself in the bathroom for hours. I painstakingly repeated words over and over, trying to make their sounds fall into place, looking in the mirror to try to make my mouth work the way everyone else's did so effortlessly. I fought with my unwieldy tongue until I was hoarse and sobbing, 8 years old and deeply convinced of the truth: I was a failure. I somehow had to try harder.

When I was 11, my mom found a book that they used in special speech therapy classes. We couldn't afford those kinds of classes, but my mom patiently sat down and started to work through it with me on our own. The book had diagrams, descriptions, and exercises. Somehow it clicked. And after a few days, I was able to say my own name correctly for the first time in my life: Mary Rose. I remember it caught in my throat.

The first reaction was fear. I had sounded a certain way for as long as I could speak, and now the familiarity afforded by that brokenness was being taken from me (I have always been this way: I would rather the familiar hurt than the unfamiliar hope). But soon the realization of being able to do it right, no longer being an outsider in the realm of speech, overtook that apprehension. Within a few months, most surface level traces of my old habits were gone.

I've been turning this over and over in my head lately as I've been exploring my desperate need for approval and how to overcome it. In a lot of ways, I am silenced by shame these days as surely as I was 13 years ago.

When I first learned to talk honestly about my life and my faith, it was new and hard and not always perfect but so beautiful. And then I started to realize I wasn't always doing it right (by the standards of others). I was sometimes too liberal, sometimes too conservative. Sometimes too "Christian," sometimes too irreverent. Sometimes too feminist, sometimes too traditional. Sometimes too intellectual, sometimes too simple. So I stopped speaking what I believe about a lot of things, and then I became afraid to believe those things at all, afraid to call attention to my wrongness. I began to feel any opinion at all was more valid than mine.

And it started bleeding into every other area of my life. I have heard people saying that things I have experienced are not valid, that they don't understand them-- so I stopped speaking the truth of those things I have lived, started trying to erase them from my presentation of myself. I have become ashamed of almost every aspect of my story. I am aware that for every moment I have lived, there is someone somewhere with an opinion that would say that's not right.

I am not particularly sure when I started focusing so much on what is approved rather than what is true. But I am extremely tired of it. I am weary of being afraid every waking moment that I'm not meeting someone's standard.

Throughout my teen years, the old speech habits of my childhood rarely surfaced. I only saw them in college in moments of extreme stress, such as before giving presentations in class. But last year I found something that could wake it: a demanding job in food service and a life mostly devoid of tangible human support.

On the bad days, there would be a chain of anxiety triggers, small things stacking, until I'd be taking someone's order and feel letters dropping out of my sentences, slurring, stammering, scattering in the noise. I'd fight to hold my pronounciation together. On a few occasions I ended up dashing to the bathroom where I locked myself in a dirty stall and dry heaved until the panic passed and my words arranged themselves again.

In a way, the upheaval of the last few years has triggered more than just the recurrence of that childhood monster. It's silenced me in those other ways, silenced my story, silenced much of my ability to be honest even with myself.

I am aware that my honesty would, in many cases, cause discomfort, disagreement, and potential heartache. I am aware that in other cases it could cause healing, a sense of resonance from others who have experienced similar things and do not feel free to express them. 

So these days I am constantly weighing the question: where is it worth it? Where does the potential for healing outweigh the potential for hurt? I don't believe in speaking my mind just for the sake of speaking; that quickly turns into arrogance, or gossip, or group pity parties. But I strongly believe in honesty for the purpose of healing, for having conversations that matter more, for true soul-deep closeness, for shedding light in dark places, for uncovering and recovering truth.

That second kind of honesty is the kind I am trying to uncover again, regardless of whether it would earn approval from the right list of people (whoever that is-- sometimes when I ask myself who are you trying to please, I can't even pin down a name). And I am trying to uncover it in a way that provides more healing than damage to others in the process. I would rather (always) be kind than "right," but there has to be a way to do that without feeling the need to evaporate as a kind of self-regulated damage control. I want my silences to become motivated only by gentleness, not by shame that tells me you can't say it right, can't be right– your hardest efforts are not trying hard enough. 

I want to leave this world marked more by mercy than when I found it, not embedded with the shrapnel of graceless rants. I don't particularly know the way to get there. But it's going to look like some careful relearning. It's going to look like practice. It's going to look like letting go of the fear that I am not really myself without my shame. 

It's going to look an awful lot like learning to speak.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Colorado 2014: Hearing Echoes

I was looking out the window at the mountains, seeing their dimensions blur into just another item on the list of things to miss, just another trip relegated to nostalgia.

I stared at the Colorado landscape until it flattened out into the plains, and then I settled back in my seat, jammed my earbuds in tighter, and turned up the volume on my iPod. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep, slowing my breathing to encourage my brain to shut down, to stop moving, to stop thinking, to stop feeling. Three or four songs later, I gave up. I opened the notes app on my iPod to write.

I feel tremendous, unspeakable grief.

But at least I feel something.


I’d been in Colorado for two weeks, and it was my third major trip of the summer. My first two-- first to Texas, then to Wisconsin-- had been similarly beautiful, full of the people I am closest to, full of adventures, full of a heart slowly opening under the warmth of beautiful moments and an awareness of God. Both times, I’d returned to Tennessee optimistic, brimming with a sweet, irrational hope. Both times, within a few weeks I simply felt nothing.

This has become the familiar status quo since moving out here as newlyweds, uncertain and isolated and broke. It feels like last week that we got here-- mostly because so few of the days between have seemed real to me. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like when I got here my ability to emotionally engage anything completely disappeared. It happened so suddenly and completely that it took me six months before I realized how numb I’d become.

For a while, earlier this year, I worried that I might be headed towards considering suicide again (a pattern that was so built into my existence as a teenager that I am always wary of it resurfacing). It wasn’t until my trip to Texas in May that I realized I didn’t want to end my life: I felt like it was already over, and a part of me was grieving. And it wasn’t until I went to Wisconsin later that I realized there was still the possibility of life, the reality of a different way, and it was going to have to be a spiritual mending, not a change of circumstances.

I don’t want to seem over-dramatic or present an unbalanced picture-- though I am discussing my struggles here, there have been successes as well as struggles. This has been far, far from my worst year. I have, in some ways, been healthier than I’ve ever been this past year, at least in terms of functionality. I am usually intensely self-aware, which is (like most things) both good and bad. But even that self-awareness has been dulled as of late, reduced to simply the thought I am not who I want to be.

Good things happen, and I struggle to be grateful for them, struggle to experience joy. Bad things happen, and even if I repeat them to myself over and over again, I can’t feel the weight of them.

And I’ve woken up in the morning countless times since moving here to find I’d been crying in my sleep, only able to engage when the walls of consciousness were obliterated.

I’ve realized what a large part of it is (although this is only one aspect of it, and it’s much more multi-faceted than this; this is only a blog post, after all). I am absolutely addicted to the approval of others. It wasn’t always this way, since for much of my life I received so few doses of approval an addiction to it couldn’t even form. But these past several years it’s become increasingly worse. And as much as I crave that approval, I am also painfully aware at any given time of how far short of that perception I actually fall-- I am plagued by that common fear if people really knew me, they’d think so much differently. This to say that I can’t usually accept the affirmation I’m offered, which makes it a spectacularly unhelpful and unhealthy addiction.

I’ve been completely isolated from the approval of most people for over a year now. Not just isolated from approval, but from their kindness, their interest, their friendship, as well-- simply because I am isolated from most people, as previously discussed many times. I have reached the place now where I have accepted I will very likely never have a community here, and I need to learn how to live with that reality. Which has meant I am left alone to face again a distaste for myself that I can’t even fully put into words.

I hate that I want people to affirm me, still, after all these years (my brain screams this is a middle school flaw everyone else your age is over). I hate that I feel so underqualified for every single aspect of life I’m facing right now. I hate that I can’t get over myself and just be content, that I can be so deeply self-centered despite years of fighting so hard to see, to love other people. And many days, even as I throw myself in frustration against the walls of my metaphorical isolation chamber, I know the vacuum of relationship is to be expected. Why would anyone like me? I don’t like me. I can’t blame anyone else for feeling similarly.

So I stop feeling. I know I am still deeply in need of internal change because of this: it’s as though without people to remind me who I am, I cease to exist at all.


I got to Colorado this year feeling, honestly, skeptical. I’ve started to hear this voice in the back of my head, whispering grown ups don’t have meaningful life experiences anymore. You’re married and employed and your name’s on an apartment lease-- it’s all over for you in terms of living vibrantly. You barely have time to talk to these people outside of this yearly meeting anymore. They won’t remember who you are, or you’ll all have changed so much there will be no relationship left.

I was proven wrong in the span of the first hour or two.

Between flipping stations in the car and critiquing the songs on the radio, cramming into a kitchen full of friends, downing multiple cups of coffee, being hugged half a dozen times, and getting into a conversation about theology and contemporary Western culture less than 30 minutes after “hello,” I started to realize that maybe life still happens to me-- in me.

Our group gathering was only three days this year, the shortest it’s ever been. It was rushed and certainly different from when we were all teenagers, but I was reminded over and over again that some things don’t change-- that things I believed to be lost are actually still very real, albeit in different forms. I would stay in Colorado for another week and a half afterwards, watching movies, running on mountain trails, lying under the stars, soaking in conversations about things that matter, trying my hand at honesty. I felt my faith waking up under my skin. It was like I’d been given permission to believe again, permission to meet God’s eyes and accept that maybe He was still steadfastly paying attention to me.

It wouldn’t be until I was on the plane home that I would understand it: that has ultimately been the question, this whole time since moving here. It was never why am I in a soul-crushing food service job? It was never why did I have to leave behind friends and family I love so deeply? It was never why can’t I make friends-- why can’t I even want to make friends? It was never why am I being placed in a job I am spectacularly undeserving of? I thought those were my questions, the ones that left me numb, but they weren’t. The real question was very simple: does God still like me?

I’m not going to pretend that two weeks in Colorado fixed that. But it tied some threads of grace to my heart that I pray will become highways for hope before they can be severed.

Because when friends who have known me long and listened to the worst of me told me I am kind, I began to believe I could be again. And when they told me they trust me, I began to feel like perhaps I was worth trusting. And when they told me that the things I think about God resonated with how they think about Him too, I started to feel for the first time in a very long time that I’m not a total failure of a Christian, that maybe grace is still absorbing all my doubts-- that He still thinks I’m worth the risk of Calvary.

By the end, I was feeling everything again, leaning my forehead against a smudged pane of glass on the airplane, crying in a movie-ready moment of catharsis. And I realized that yes, maybe I would lose the ability to feel. Maybe all my clarity would melt under the harsh pressure of isolation and routine. But it was only maybe-- not an absolute. The same God (who knows the worst and still stays) my friends echoed was in Nashville. That same God was with me on the plane. That first inclination of comfort, of freedom from myself, that I’ve felt in months-- it was from the One who, no matter where I go, I can’t outrun. I will never find a place where His grace is not.

In the office of a music industry icon who will likely not remember my name.

On the bedroom carpet when the anxiety comes like a maelstrom again.

In the silent apartment where I wait for hours for my roommate and my husband to come home.

Navigating the aisles of a chain grocery store where every half-familiar angle makes me homesick for my siblings.

Sidestage for one of my favorite bands.

Trekking across the scorched pavement where I run to subdue the lies I’ve heard.

He inhabits all the blank spaces left by the goodbyes I’ve said in order to follow Him.

And someday I think I’m going to hear Him say again that I’m forgiven, that I don’t have to hide anymore, that I don’t have to wake up every morning so ashamed of an existence that seems incapable of being what it should be.

I’m not quite there yet. But as I caught my second flight and ate the gluten free pancake and peanut butter sandwiches and Mickey Mouse fruit snacks a friend had packed for me… I felt a little closer.