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.