From the Basement

April 30, 2010

Freedom & Family

It is the greatest longing of my heart to walk every day fully in the loving freedom that Christ so generously gives. Freedom to love, freedom to write, freedom to express, freedom to move, freedom to live without condemnation. For there is no condemnation for those who walk in Christ Jesus – who the son sets free is free indeed! His love and mercy covers all of our sin; he offers us the chance to come cleanly before God.

It’s such an awesome gift. I have a hard time wrapping my head around it, but I’m grateful for it. The struggle – mine, at least – is living it out day by day.

There are a lot of things in this world that can cramp the freedom that Jesus gives. Fear, anger, loneliness, bitterness, mistrust, anxiety, and a variety of other sins can leave us feeling less than free – we walk in the shadow of sin rather than the shadow of His wing. And that is no place for anyone to walk. But sometimes, those shadows feel so powerful.

I think one of the most difficult shadows we can live under is that of our family, be it our family history, our past mistakes, our family members’ past mistakes, or just difficulties in general. Heck, it could even be under the pressure of having to live up to your family! And for every Cleaver family, I bet you that any one of us can point to dozens and dozens of “broken homes” and, of course, the people who come from them.

Quick aside: I’ve never much liked the term “broken homes.” First off, it sounds like it can’t be fixed. And I don’t like that. Love covers a multitude of sins, and our faith guarantees us a redeeming love, a redeeming power – the love that can cast out bitterness and brokenness, love that can heal. So I don’t much care for the term “broken home.” Also, there’s the simple fact that it puts homes in a binary opposition: they’re either broken or whole, and it seems to be a naive assumption that there’s such thing as a totally-broken or totally-whole home. As an old pastor of mine once said, “Everybody’s walking on broken floors.” Everybody – even the Cleavers – has some issue they have dealt with or are dealing with that has affected their family. So no, I don’t much care for the word “broken” in this application, but seeing as it’s so prevalent in our culture, you all get what I mean when I say it.

This was one of my greatest spiritual struggles during my freshman year of college. I was away from my family for the first time, away from the pain and the fights and the grievances. Basically, I felt a lot of guilt: guilt and pain at being separated from my then-15-year-old sister, who was still in the middle of everything; guilt for not being able to be there for my mom, as I had been for so many years; and guilt for feeling, above all, a sense of relief and freedom, that I was finally out from under my parents’ roof.

But I continued to carry my family’s burdens with me. I’d been carrying them for so long that it was normal. I had lengthy conversations with my mom, listening to her, and there was one particularly vitriolic argument I had with my dad on the phone. My sister started to say things like, “You don’t understand. You don’t live here anymore.” And all the while, I was trying to form a new life with new habits, better habits, cleaner habits. But I was still parked firmly under my family’s shadow. Even away from them, I did not feel free. I was relieved, yes, but not free.

During second semester, God started to pull out all the stops. There were these tiny study booths at the end of the hall (we called ’em phone booths since people only used them to talk on the phone). One night, I was in a phone booth with my friend Laura, a source of great spiritual strength and comfort, and I was bawling my eyes out about my family, railing on about abuse and addiction and awful marriages and all those things I was sure I was never going to get away from. I can’t remember our whole conversation, but I do remember that at one point, she looked me square in the eye and said, “God is bigger than family history.”

It felt like a slap in the face, but that was one of the first moments where I remember being forced to reckon with the fact that God is bigger, and that if I wasn’t letting him in, that meant that I didn’t think he was who he said he was. It meant I was proud. It meant I was refusing healing from Jehovah Rapha, the God who heals. … Ouch.

Soon after, I was talking with a senior, Jessika, who really mentored me that year. She gave me a copy of Do You Think I’m Beautiful? by Angela Thomas. I’ve mentioned the book in this blog before, and I even think I mentioned the thing that most spoke to me. Her discussion of our sacks of ashes – how we carry those sacks around for so long, bent over so far, not knowing what way is up, just knowing that we’re very, very comfortable carrying it around. I realized the extent to which I’d been carrying my family’s ashes around and that – wow – I didn’t have to. Those burdens can be laid at Christ’s feet, a fact I knew but hadn’t grasped.

And then the women’s bible study went to the Women of Faith conference, and that year’s theme was Amazing Freedom. go figure. So yes – God did wonders in my life that semester. Wonders that started me on the path to freedom.

Four years later, I have been freed in so many ways, but, living at home, I find myself in a different struggle. It’s the struggle of having had everything change – your perspective as well as the family itself (divorce) – and yet still being surrounded by… is the ghosts of yesteryear too Dickensian? Without going into too much detail, it’s become a struggle for me to try and love on my family and remain free from taking on the burdens. Whenever I do, fights happen. And there have been fights this month, with my parents and my sister. I’m trying to figure out how to live with them, love them, and move forward without falling into those old traps, those old places where I’d pick up a sack of mom’s and a sack of dad’s and start walking with it.

I wrote recently on the struggle to be honest in my writing – how to cull details and themes from my childhood and adolescence without causing pain to my family. A part of me is very afraid of hurting them, upsetting them.

But I can’t go back under that shadow. I love my family, but I love my Creator more. And He loves my family so much! I’m learning how to honor and respect my parents (perhaps for the first time, honestly) and how to love my sister while remaining free – free from what they think of me, free from their opinion, free even from their own personal struggles. I cannot take on their pain. I can only deal with mine, and the best way to do that is to lay it all before the throne of Jesus and say “Here! Take it! I don’t want it!”

And then he takes it, and he gives beauty for ashes. How cool is that? How blessed we are to have such a loving, loving God!

It seems that the sources of struggle in our lives can evolve in their nature just as we mature and evolve in our faith. The good news is that Jesus is right there with us – and who the Son sets free is free indeed. Freedom, beauty, joy, contentment, peace … I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

April 28, 2010

Doing what you love > Fearing what you love

Do you ever get nervous after you finish a project and then start a new one? That’s where I’m at right now. I just finished a multi-chapter short story (under 10K words) for an online gift exchange that I’ve participated in for several years. I think this might be the last year I do it, because I’m itching to dive into my own work.

Many of you know that I had the darndest time finishing this story. I’ve sort of figured out why – it wasn’t the story, per se. I liked the prompt and I really enjoyed the writing. What held me back was a latent fear of what comes after, a knowledge that once I finished that story, I had to stop BS-ing myself and actually sit down and take time to write my own stuff every day. This is why I so enjoy creative writing classes: built in deadlines, quick feedback, explicit assignments, and the I’m-doing-it-for-a-grade mentality. Not that I write for grades (goodness, no!); it’s just that when there’s the knowledge that I’m turning it in, the other fears are suppressed.

I have ungodly-high levels of expectation for my writing, expectations which will probably never be met in this lifetime. And if I ever come close, it will only be through that daily practice of writing. Writing is work – it is a craft, and like any craft, it requires practice. Apprenticeship. Years of toil. Everyone writes shitty first drafts (as Anne Lamott says) and they only get better if you roll up your sleeves and dig in.

Everyone has a different writing process, sort of like how people practice their spirituality/faith in different ways. I had an instructor this last year who is a self-described “binge writer” – she writes multiple chapters in a fury, and then doesn’t write for a few weeks, and then comes back to it. And then there are the folks who write every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. On the faith side of things, I have friends who need daily quiet time and friends who don’t, friends for whom art or dance is their primary mode of worship, and friends who light candles at the alter in their room.

While I can do the binge writing and even the binge praying, truth is, I need a daily schedule to keep myself in the zone and focused. (This is part of why I’m keeping a blog.) I need daily prayer and quiet time, and I’ll preferably be reading a book (Angela Thomas, Katie Brazelton, etc.) along with it. Finding daily faith time is something I’ve got in the habit of over these last two years. But daily writing time… I’m not quite there yet.

I long for a time two summers ago, the time when I finished my first novel. There wasn’t fear or anxiety; it was erased by the knowledge that every day over my lunch hour, I would go to Acoustic Café, order a half hoagie sandwich and a Coke, and then sit for the duration of the hour writing as furiously on yellow legal tablets as I could. It was a daily practice, something I did to keep myself sane in the midst of a crazy internship, and I long – oh, how I long – for that feeling again. I haven’t been writing regularly (save for creative writing classes) since that summer.

A book by Barbara Demarco-Barrett has been my writing salvation for this last year. It’s entitled Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within. Her writing solution is fifteen minutes a day, plain and simple, whether it’s when the water’s boiling for dinner or when you first wake up in the morning. I took that advice to heart last summer when I worked at a daycare. I would take my legal tablets to work with me, scribbling furiously in the off-moments when the kids were reading or having free time. There weren’t many off-moments, but over the course of the summer, I completed the rough draft of the short story that became part of my honors project.

This last month, I’ve been at home – both at Mom’s and at Dad’s – and I’ve got some writing done, sure. I’ve been writing this blog. But I’ve been lazy about my fiction because I’m so darn afraid of what’s going to happen when I get in that schedule. Part of me is afraid that I’m not going to want to let it go, that embracing my writing means acknowledging that grad school is on the back burner.

It might seem like we’re switching gears here, but I promise we’re not. Let me put it this way: my boyfriend wants to be a professor because he honest to goodness loves teaching physics – and he’s really good at it, too. Me, I love the material. I enjoy literature and lit analysis, lit theory … I never want for research subjects. But when the BF asked me about my ideal job in academia, I said that my ideal was a position where I taught part-time, thus having time for writing. (Because I hold no illusions about professors at liberal arts schools; they work their asses off and are lucky if they get their own research done.)

It’s not that I’ve put writing and grad school into binary opposition, that it’s one or the other. But it’s hard – so hard – to keep writing while you’re in grad school (unless you’re in the MFA program). I have it on the authority of those who know. And writing is not something I want to sacrifice for a life in academe. It’d be great to do both, but I’d rather write.

All this to say, the answer that I gave should have been a clue that the Little Girl Downstairs was alive and well, and that maybe the Big Girl Downstairs was ignoring her strongest desires. The LGD is that six-year-old who declared to her parents that she would be a writer someday and who never relinquished that dream; she is the ten-year-old whose poem about the Titanic was published in the local paper after winning a contest and who realized how wonderful it was to write things other people actually wanted to read – that little girl has never gone away. That little girl longs to write for the rest of her life, and preferably to get paid for it, too. But that little girl is also afraid of what it means to realize her dream.

I think that what our biggest dreams can be the things we’re most afraid of. Funny how that works.

There are only two things I can do at this point: first, pray, because love casts out fear. And second, get my butt in a chair and start writing. Confront the monster head on. Get back in the saddle. Get back to doing what makes me feel more alive than anything else on this earth.

And then, keep doing it.

April 26, 2010

Sexuality & Youth Group (part one)

So for those of you who were counting on me just blogging about writing, the job hunt, and the occasional encouraging scripture, well… no. I’m all about full disclosure. So let’s start talking about an issue that is close to my heart.

Sexuality and youth groups – specifically, youth groups in America today. This is a subject I could write a book on. Heck, make it broader – sexuality and the church. Specifically, women’s sexuality and the church.

Okay, too big. Narrow it back down: sexuality and youth group. Sexuality and girls in youth group.

I have been involved in several youth ministries throughout my – err, youth – and I’ve found that, in almost every one, sexuality was a taboo topic. This is my interpretation of the various youth leaders I interacted with:

Oh. My. Gosh. You have sexual desires? Evil! Evil! Sex is bad until you get married, don’t you understand? Stay away. Do not kiss. Do not touch. And for God’s sake, don’t get involved with people who aren’t Christians. Only Christian boys will understand that you need to have certain physical boundaries. Since they are Christian boys, they will never pressure you to have sex. But oh, we forgot to tell you, they are visual creatures and God help you if you wear anything larger than an A or B cup bra, because everything you wear is going to make them stumble. Not just skirts with slits that go up to the knee. No. Turtlenecks will make them stumble – yes, that includes the kind you wear that you think are okay. But let me tell you something: clunky knit turtlenecks are NOT OKAY! Boys have no control. Protect your brothers’ eyes! Don’t make them stumble!

And in the meantime, we are going to completely disregard any discussion of your sexuality because you a girl and thus you will not have sexual desires until you get married at which point God is going to flip the ON switch and then suddenly, you are going to become a tiger in the bedroom. Which will be okay, since you’ll be married.

*look at other youth group leaders* Have we avoided any actual discussion of these girls’ sexuality? *sigh in relief* Thank God!

Get the picture?

I recognize that plenty of people have different experiences, more positive experiences. But what was written above is, honestly, not too far removed from what I was told in the various middle and high school youth groups I both participated in and visited. Yes, that includes the bit on clunky knit turtlenecks.

In the interest of avoiding an overly long entry, I think I’m going to break this subject down and visit it periodically. What I want to talk about today, though, is what I believe to be the most common oversight in youth groups today:

Who, girls? Not our girls! Girls do not struggle with sexual desire.

Oh, yes they do. Not every girl, of course – girls are people, too, and in every group of young women, you will find a variety of struggles: pride, envy, jealousy, lust, perfectionism, a need to control, bullying, foul language, drinking, drug abuse, eating disorders – and the list goes on. But it is absolutely crucial to acknowledge that, yes, teenage girls (and even pre-teen girls) may very well struggle with their sexuality.

Youth leaders are doing their girls a grave, grave disservice if they neglect to discuss this topic with them. Girls may struggle just as much as boys in keeping physical boundaries up. While “don’t have sex” is certainly a common-ish discussion in youth groups, I can almost guarantee you that many girls in youth groups today have never heard their female leaders talk about masturbation, porn, and/or erotica. Guys in youth groups get these talks (or so my boyfriend tells me). Girls don’t. As a result, girls who struggle with this may operate in a world where they think they are abnormal, weird, disgusting, dirty – they are under the misconception that these things are normal and okay struggles for guys but oh my gosh, how could they be struggling with this? How do they handle it? They think, what’s wrong with me?

I know this because I was one of those girls. I struggled with sexual addictions throughout high school and into college, addictions that felt like strangleholds, chains. They were sources of shame and guilt that, at times, crippled my spiritual walk. In the last few years, I have been recovering, thank you Jesus. It’s been a long road.

But I also know this because I co-led a women’s bible study for two years on my college campus (I was in it all four years), and I shared my testimony on this subject several times.  I was often met with surprise (from girls for whom this wasn’t a struggle) and quiet understanding (from girls for whom it was). Over the years, I have had multiple young women approach me saying, “I don’t know who else I can share this with. I thought it was just me.”

I have tears in my eyes as I write this. I think that freedom from this sort of struggle could begin so much earlier in young women’s lives if they were told up front, by their parents and their youth leaders, “God created you as a sexual creature. These desires are normal. This is not something to be ashamed of. This is not something you lock away. This is a part of you, just like your emotions and your mind, that you give to God. This is a part of you that He created, that He loves, and that was made to be good. You are not alone.”

There are lessons of self-discipline, surrender, and spiritual growth that go along with that message, but telling girls that is a start. Quite simply, we fear what we don’t know. And when sexuality is never discussed, when it is taboo, when it is a mystery, goodness sakes – we’re almost asking for trouble in our youth groups. We forget that the perfect love of Christ casts out all fear. Lord, give us the freedom to walk in that conviction.

April 25, 2010

Writing What You Know (& family)

“Write what you know” is one of the “classic” bits of writing advice that I feel pretty okay about disregarding. If people only wrote what they literally knew, we wouldn’t have fantasy, sci-fi, or most of the mysteries and thrillers that dominate the market. Hell, we probably wouldn’t have most romances, either, let alone your stand-alone bestsellers like The Lovely Bones (which I still haven’t read and don’t think I could handle). Not to mention one of my favorite genres, the dystopian novel. 1984, Animal Farm, The Handmaid’s Tale – gone.

Emotional honesty, though – now, that’s something else entirely. In On Writing, Steven King tells us, “The heart also knows things, and so does the imagination. Thank God. If not for the heart and imagination, the world of fiction would be a pretty seedy place. It might not even exist at all.”

If we take “write what you know” literally (as too many writing instructors do, especially in those formative years), we cripple ourselves. But if we are to take it as a mandate to write from the heart, to be as emotionally honest as possible, to write with the integrity necessary to telling a truly good story – well then. Write what you know, indeed.

I think there comes a point in time where most writers understand this. We say, yeah! I can write whatever I want! Boo-yah! (or whatever you yell in moments like that)

But then comes the Oh, Shit Moment when you realize that writing from your heart is freaking hard. To write honestly, you have to be honest with yourself, and not only about yourself, but about your relationships and your job or your classes and, most of all, your family.

I’m writing about this because I’m struggling with this. Today, on this grey, wet Sunday morning, I got an idea for a novel. A big novel. It would be big, that is, in size. I’m thinking about the characters, the arcs, the complexity, and – well, it’s inspired in part by my family. Not based on my family, but some of the themes are ones I’m taking from personal experience.

And the struggle is – okay, I can write it. But what if my mom ever finds out? – which she would, if she was alive when it was published (though a heavenly confrontation is not above her, I’m telling you). Not because I based a character on her, because I’m not about to do that – characters should walk and breathe and become and be their own people – but I know that if certain situations or themes or emotions made it into the novel that relate to my family (as they’re bound to at some point in my writing career)… well, of course she’ll recognize it and know where it comes from, even if Jane Smith on the street is reading going, “Oh my gosh, that’s my family!” having absolutely no idea where I got the inspiration.

You see the dilemma? So, on this business of writing what you know. How the hell do you write what you know when you’re afraid of hurting the people you love? I’ve read the writing manuals on disguising characters, making them physically and geographically as separated from the person (people) you’re basing them on as possible. Also, according to Anne Lamott, you’re supposed to make them anti-Semitic and give them a tiny penis so that they will never recognize themselves.

But let’s face it. The people we’re closest to, the people who live with us, the people who raise us – they know where themes come from. Ideas. Certain scenes, and whatever else you decide to plop in there.

Everyone says you have to free yourself from the fear of hurting your loved ones. You can be honest and respectful at the same time. I get that. But in the back of my mind, there’s still this nagging sense of “what if?”

That’s just something I’ll have to work on. And I’ll start writing the story anyway. Because really, if you don’t write the story you want to tell, why are you writing in the first place?

April 24, 2010

Strengths, Weaknesses, & Job Hunting

Filed under: Choices,Uncategorized,Writing — jeannablue @ 7:59 pm
Tags: , , ,

I have an interview on Monday for a job I’m really excited about, and so I was surprised to find myself worrying about it in the middle of Wal-Mart’s dairy section this morning. I wasn’t worrying about the job or even the interview, per se. Rather, I found myself dreading the inevitable questions: what are your strengths? What are your weaknesses?

Part of the reason for the dread is that I’ve been re-evaluating what I consider a strength and a weakness. I recently read through the latest book by Marcus Buckingham, Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently. (Before you laugh, please note that the book was a Christmas gift from my mom, who is the queen of buying business and self-help books, so to her, Marcus Buckingham is the best thing since sliced bread.) While most of the book was predictable (apparently my Strong Life Pattern is “Creator” – golly gee!), Buckingham really gave me pause for thought in how he addressed strengths and weaknesses.

Simply put, he says that a weakness is not something you’re bad at. A weakness is something that makes you feel weak.

I’m sure a lot of us have things we’re good at that we really, really loath doing. In my case, it’s organizing on a large scale (like the end-of-year carnival at school or the business fashion show or the BioBlitz for the environmental non-profit I interned with). However, for some reason, people seem to think that I want to do this. To my discredit, I usually agree to, because I don’t trust other people to do the job. (Memo to self: learn to delegate.) But the thought of doing that sort of thing on a regular basis makes me cringe inside.

Most recently, I was cringing over the fact that one of my profs (who I love dearly) seemed to think that I was tailor-made for this program assistant position that opened up at the college. I’m graduating and not going to grad school, so she thought I’d be perfect for this. “But you’re so good at!” she has insisted over and over. I caved and asked HR for a detailed list of job responsibilities. It shouldn’t have surprised me that even reading through the list made me feel sick.

Basically, the thought of doing it every day for the next year filled me with a sense of dread and terror.

That job has now (thankfully) been filled by someone else, and sometime – if it comes up – I will tell my professor, please don’t pressure me to do something that I hate doing. Thank you, Marcus Buckingham, for giving me the courage to admit that something I’m good at is actually my biggest weakness.

On the flip side, our strengths are things we may or may not be good at but that make us feel strong – that energize us, boost us, encourage us. For me, writing is one of my greatest strengths. I have to tell you, today was an awesome writing day. This morning, I got chapter three and most of chapter four written in the latest story I’m working on. And you know what? I felt so strong. So good. So productive. So on target. Filled with purpose.

What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? And how on earth do we translate those into jobs? I’m trying to figure this out – to balance what I’m willing to do with what I want to do, my dream jobs with the ones that are just so-so. All I can do is pray for honesty and direction, and that the Lord is going to put me in a place where some strength will shine through.

April 23, 2010

Happiness vs. Contentment

Filed under: Choices,Faith — jeannablue @ 2:37 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

So often, we hear “I’m just not happy” as an excuse, whether for leaving a relationship, a job, an obligation, a family. While a continued lack of happiness may be indicative of an issue in your life, happiness is an emotion that is impossible to sustain 24/7. Contentment, however, is something that can be sustained, primarily because it comes directly from the Creator.

There is a reason why the Bible does not often talk about happiness but rather joy and contentment. To be sure, happiness is a good emotion! We may be extraordinarily happy when witnessing the work of the Lord, be it through a sunset or a newborn baby. I know that I am happy when I see a loved one after a time apart. Happiness abounds when friends unite for good conversation and laughter. But happiness cannot be continuously sustained, and consequently, it cannot sustain us.

And this makes sense: happiness is a uniquely temporal, earthly emotion, I think – an honest one, a good one, one that can be wrapped up in joy and contentment, but one that is altogether divorced from joy and contentment.

I’m mentioning joy and contentment together, but I really want to focus on contentment because it is such a different animal than happiness or even joy. In Philippians 4:11, Paul says, “I have learned in whatever state I am to be content.”

Contentment happens in all situations, good and bad. You can be content in the face of anything. You cannot be happy in the face of anything. At least, most people find it difficult to be happy in every situation.

Happiness and contentment are different in the ways they play out in our lives. Personally, contentment is a lot harder. Happiness is an emotion often induced by action – be it laughter, good conversation, or going down a zipline over volcanoes in Guatemala. Contentment, on the flip side, is similar to peace in that it’s not initially an action. We can choose to be content or to accept the peace of the Lord, but it’s not something we can strive for.

Contentment is something we rest in and accept. Happiness is the result of something we do. Do you see the difference?

Contentment comes through resting in the everlasting arms of our comforter, our lover, Jesus Christ. Are you resting in His arms? Or are you striving against them?

Christ gives us so many reasons to trust Him, so many reasons to rest in Him. The beautiful promises of our awesome God abound throughout the Old and New Testaments. The following are a random assortment of promises spoken by Jesus in the some of the Gospels…

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” Matthew 7:7-8

“The very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore: you are of more value than many sparrows.” Matthew 10:30-31

“If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free…. If the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed!” John 8:31, 36

“I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” John 10:10

“I am the good shepherd; and I know My sheep, and am known by my own…. My sheep hear My voice… and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” John 10:14, 27-28 (italics mine)

“In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 17:33

Do you hear the voice of your beautiful Savior? His very words promise knowledge of His truth, an abundant life, gifts that are good in His sight. He promises that He has overcome the world – for us. He sets us free from the confines of worry and pain, anxiety and a troubled heart… who the Son sets free is free indeed!

One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is when Jesus tells us that He is the good shepherd and that we are His sheep. It is so humbling. I have no idea why He chooses us, but I am so very grateful that He does! What awesome gifts He gives us! What a blessing it is to be able to rest. In a troubled world filled with turmoil and tension, we as the beloved of Christ are offered rest… it is a free gift to any who believe in Him.

“I know My sheep, and am known by my own…. Neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand…”

That is why we can be content. Paul has learned in all things to be content – through shipwreck and snakebite and illness and prison and being jeered at and tormented… and this verse goes a long way in explaining why He is content. He knows his Savior, and his Saviors knows him, and Paul is able to rest in that. In the face of everything else, Paul knows that Jesus is right there with him. Paul was not alone, and we are not alone, either.

We are known by our Savior. You are known by Him. I am known by Him. Even when we do not acknowledge Him, He knows us. He loves us. He is the good shepherd who goes in search of His lost sheep.

Happiness comes and goes, and it is certainly fun, but I pray that it is not the litmus test that we measure our lives by. It is so inconstant, so reliant on our own selves and those around us. Contentment, though, is a guarantee from the one who put the stars in the sky. Contentment enables us to respond in faith to every situation. It is also perspective – contentment in the Lord gives us a good perspective on our lives.

Contentment = peace. No striving. No anxiety. No worry. Just an utter trust in our Lord and Savior. He is our Deliverer – He always delivers on His promises. His love never fails.

In all things, indeed, I am learning to be content. Lord, let that be so.

April 22, 2010

On Perfectionism

There’s this great line in the song “Free to Be Me” by Francesca Battistelli. It says, “Perfection is my enemy.”

How true. How terrifying, how limiting, how crippling is that perfectionistic streak that runs through so many of us.

Lately, perfectionism has been blocking my writing. Obviously not on this blog – having a daily goal and a few people reading does a lot in the way of accountability. But there’s this story I’m writing that’s due in five days to an online exchange and I have had the assignment for months and I cannot for the life of me find the focus to finish the second chapter.

Perfectionism, so defined by Webster’s, is “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” The question is, why do we hold ourselves to that standard in the first place? No one does something perfectly the first time. Heck, people don’t do things perfectly after years in a business – years of writing, of professional athletics, of making deals.

I have some friends who struggle with this. I have struggled with it – but I find that my struggle doesn’t usually focus on the goal of perfection. My struggle has been my own intense dissatisfaction with what I’ve produced, what I’ve written. It could be better. It could be a bestseller. Why can’t I write bestselling material on the first try? Why can’t I finish this story? – my perfectionism manifests itself in intense negativity. Usually, I can get work finished. But I have a passionate dislike for it. I say it’s the worst paper I’ve ever written or it’s the worst story I’ve ever written or…

You get the picture.

We cart around skyscraper-high standards all day, forgetting that the only way you scale that building is one inch at a time. The goal of moving an inch forward is a lot more reasonable than our desire to make a Spiderman leap to the top. Nobody can be Spiderman. Nobody can be perfect. Spiderman wasn’t perfect. So there you go. (Now I feel like the dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding…)

We forget to break it down. Short assignments. Attainable goals with an eye to the finish line. And, ultimately, laying down our pride, our need to be the best, our need to prove something to other people, our need to prove something to ourselves.

In her book Do You Think I’m Beautiful?, Angela Thomas talks about how we carry around ash sacks full of regret, sin, and shame. We are doubled over with those sacks on our back, and there’s Jesus standing in front of us offering to take the burden, and we say, “No, no, I’ve got it – see, this is my sack of ashes. I’m comfortable carrying it. I’m used to it.”

And we’re really saying, I don’t know what I’d do if I had to stand up straight.

I think that perfectionism is like a sack of ashes. We carry it around with us every day – something that started as a bundle of expectation and dreams becomes weighted down by the disappointment of shattered hope, bitterness, self-loathing, and regret.

Perfectionism is self-flagellation on a daily basis. Really, it is. We will never meet our own standards. What does a first-time bestselling author do? Freak out about the pressure they now face – that they’d better write another bestseller.

Nothing is ever good enough. Nothing ever satisfies. Getting everything you want does not bring peace. There are oh so many examples of that in the world around us, and not just the rich and famous, but the people we know – co-workers, fellow students, bosses, people at church, people in our neighborhood, maybe even people we love.

The standard is not our own worldly concept of perfection. The standard is Jesus Christ and the example He set with His beautiful love laced with jewels of mercy, threads of passion, and the comfort of His peace. He calls us to lay down our lives and follow Him. Lay down your need for acceptance, and be accepted in His arms. Lay down your need for perfection, and become enamored by the perfection of your awesome Creator. He is enough when we are not. And we are never enough, so He is always enough.

When we rest in His arms, we can be at peace with ourselves. So often, I “strive” for peace – what a joke! I am trying, trying, trying to feel peaceful just for a minute when all I need to do is sit back and bask in the warm love my Savior, my lover, my comforter, my friend.

When we call Christ our savior, we are in turn called to show His love to others. And it is very difficult for others to feel that they could be loved by someone who holds themselves to an unattainable standard of perfection. When we hold ourselves to that standard – even if we don’t think we are inflicting it on other people… we are. How hard it is to love others when we never feel we can do it successfully. How hard it is to accept love from someone who is never satisfied.

Rest. Lay back in His arms. Accept His love for yourself. And then show it to others. Lay down your own standards. He is enough. He is always enough.

The chorus of Francesca Battistelli’s “Free to Be Me” goes like this

I got a couple dents in my fender

Got a couple rips in my jeans

Try to fit the pieces together

But perfection is my enemy

And my own, I’m so clumsy

But on your shoulders I can see

I’m free to be me

In the freeing, peaceful, awesome love of Jesus Christ, we are free to be ourselves. Free to write imperfectly, dance crazily, and love wholeheartedly. And that is news worth celebrating.

April 21, 2010

Imaginary Talents

You know how when you’re little, you have imaginary friends? Well, I think that the adult version of that is imaginary talents – the talents you wish you had, those figments of your imagination that keep you comfort when what you were given falls through. Or maybe that’s just me.

Myself, I’d be in musical theater. I can act, sort of. Enough to get a small theater scholarship, anyway. But I cannot sing. Imagine a cross between Cameron Diaz in My Best Friend’s Wedding and your run-of-the-mill American Idol reject, and you’ve got me. But in my dreams, I strut into a bar singing some bluesy Janis Joplin that makes everyone sit up a little straighter in their seat. Or I’m Velma Kelly belting “All That Jazz” in the latest Broadway revival of Chicago.

Maybe we all have those “If I was just good at [fill in the blank]” as adults because we are so inundated with warnings of failure. As a kid, the fact that I’d never been to a ballet class didn’t stop me from dreaming that I could be a prima ballerina. And a lack of mathematical aptitude didn’t stop me from dreaming about becoming a molecular geneticist and curing cancer (that was after the ballerina phase). But as an adult, I am so acutely cognizant and self-conscious of my weaknesses. It pushes me to the center of the box rather than to the edges where I can really push.

While I poke fun at my singing voice, I genuinely miss performing onstage. Slam poetry became my performance outlet in college, but I didn’t step on a theatrical stage once. That’s my own fault in that I never auditioned for a show – whether I was too busy or too intimidated, something always got in the way. I got in my own way.

Our “imaginary” longings have some hold in reality. No matter how unrealistic or unlikely our fantasies seem to be, it’s worth getting to the bottom of what that desire means. For me, maybe a desire to perform onstage in a musical means that I want to be seen, appreciated, or uniquely expressive. Our subconscious can powerfully impact our conscious self.

To drive that point home, let’s switch gears to imaginary friends. When I was a little girl, I lived on a gorgeous acreage in the Iowa countryside. It was just outside of your stereotypical, tiny, everybody-knows-your-name Midwestern town. I didn’t get to see my friends outside of school very often, and I had an overactive imagination. Consequently, I had an imaginary pack of tigers that played with after school. I shared this pack of tigers with my imaginary twin brother, Ryan. Ryan was always waiting to play with me when I came home from school. I stopped playing with him around fourth, fifth grade.

Shortly after that, my mom told me that I had been conceived as a twin and that she had lost the other baby. My twin and I were fraternal.

All this to say – it seems like there comes a point in our adult lives where we shut off that intuition, that sixth sense, that knowledge of who we are and what we want.

Our “imaginary talents” or hidden desires can be telling. I don’t know what yours is, but I encourage you to explore what it may mean and – just maybe – to try something new.

April 20, 2010

Why do we watch television?

Now that I’m no longer bound by the chains of homework, I have time during the week to actually watch the one show I enjoy. Castle airs on Mondays on ABC at 9 p.m. sharp. I love the show – witty banter, engaging characters, and (usually) great story writing. It rarely disappoints.

This week was no different. But I realized that I found myself looking forward to this new episode days in advance. I have never been like that with a television show before.

Is it Castle? No. Pleasurable though the show may be, it’s not the show. Rather, it’s where I’m at in life right now. I’m usually up to my eyeballs in homework, lunch dates, meetings, and the pleasanter obligations of life (spending time with those I care about). Being at home, though, is a very isolated place to be. I occasionally talk on the phone with girlfriends and Skype with my boyfriend; I sometimes see my old girlfriends who are still around my hometown – but not much. Mostly, I’m by myself during the day. And so the books I read, the stories I write, and the television I watch become the relationships I’m most engaged in. And my guess is that there are plenty of people who are in the same boat – who may not be in my situation but who mark their lives by the passage of other people’s stories.

How does this happen? Are there characters we connect with? Or do we gravitate to the predictability of certain plots and devices? As the author Tom Clancy said, “What’s the difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” There’s a predictability to, say, a love plot.  For instance, the will-they-or-won’t-they set-up that has been driving the show Bones for so long. While the relationship between Bones and Booth has been painfully drawn out (I hear from whinging fans), I’m betting that the show will end in a satisfactory way. See, the writers have made an implicit promise to their audience: we will put you through hell for X amount of seasons, but you will ultimately be rewarded by having the couple come together.

(How TV writers fail to realize that audiences can handle the story post-getting together is beyond me. TV is sorely in need of a decent, mature adult love story that goes beyond the first “I love you.”)

We mark our lives with stories, but sometimes it seems uncertain where that boundary is – does fiction reflect life or vice versa? I once had a girlfriend who, in telling me that she was leaving school, said that she realized she’d learned everything she knew about relationships from television. I thought she was over-exaggerating at the time (still do), but the point is made. We are greatly, greatly influenced by the stories we absorb. We may begin to act them out in our own lives. Or perhaps we fall deeper and deeper into the show, into the fantasy.

I don’t know where or what the answer is. I don’t know why stories hold such a power over us. And to any of my worried friends who are reading this, trust me, I’m not deeply into the fantasy that is the show Castle (though the mystery writer in me would really, really like to land a gig like that). But I do enjoy it, and there’s something about having a story to come back to at the same time every week that is soothing. It’s a structure that’s predictable, entertaining, reassuring: at this time, you will sit down and encounter a new and intriguing story that these characters who you’ve come to know and love will be embarking on. Hang on for the ride.

Two hundred years ago, this form of entertainment came via the serial novels that were published in newspapers. Now classic writers like Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas amassed cult followings, a mass of readers who would pick up a paper every week to read what antics Pip or d’Artagnan were up to this time. Where reading was once a public activity (any period movie will have a scene where one character reads aloud to a group, I guarantee it), it is now solitary, individual, isolated, solo. Entertainment has evolved from the text to the screen, and so now we go in groups to the theater to watch the latest film, or we gather around the television set in the dorm to watch Grey’s Anatomy (to my great shame, I did that freshman year). Movies and television are the stories we experience with other people, which is perhaps part of their allure.

A history of Western storytelling may go something like this: oral tales evolved into texts which evolved into recorded entertainment, which is oral storytelling of a sort. The visual, scripted, lighting-enhanced sort.

I enjoy a good television show, and Lord knows my movie collection is constantly growing. I love stories, and a good story can impact me in a powerful way. I don’t know why, but it does. I just want to remember to stay grounded, to not become so absorbed in the relationships I am seeing, reading, or writing that I forget to nurture and nourish the ones in my life.

Ultimately, I want to write my own life story, and I don’t want it to read like a summary of other people’s lives. I’ve got my own to make. So I’d best keep making it.

April 19, 2010

“Days Like These”

Filed under: Choices,Faith,Uncategorized — jeannablue @ 1:51 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

Some days, you have to trust God because there’s nothing else you can do. I was at church with my dad this morning, and the pastor talked about placing our trust and hope in God, how placing it in other people or institutions is a lost cause. Fact is, there is no savior on Capitol Hill. There’s no savior on TV or in a book or in an institution or even in ourselves.

Faith gets me by most days, but sometimes, I shake a fist at God, asking him why he’s given me a certain situation to deal with. Others, I trudge along, making my way through the muck of apathy, trying to ignore him. It’d be nice if I could say that I didn’t have those doubt days, those tough days, those I don’t feel like faith will cut it days. But I do.

The good news is, he loves me through ‘em.

A few weeks back, I was sitting at one of my favorite cafes in town munching on a hot hoagie sandwich, listening to my iPod. This song came up. It’s from the soundtrack of a movie that I’ve never seen; my dad’s had the soundtrack since I was a kid. While the movie Falling From Grace is apparently nothing to write home about, the soundtrack is a solid collection of rock, alternative country, and Americana – John Mellencamp, Lisa Germano, Nanci Griffith, Dwight Yoakam. And this song, which describes where I’m at right now.

“Days Like These” by Janis Ian

On days like these

When the rain won’t fall

And the sky is so dry

That even birds can’t call

I can feel your tears

Disappearing in the air

Carried on the breeze

On days like these

It’s years like these

That make a young man old

Bend his back against the promises

That life should hold

They can make him wise

They can drive him to his knees

Nothing comes for free

On days like these

But you can’t reap what you don’t sow

And you can’t plant in fallow ground

So let us fill this empty earth with hope

Until the rains come down

In lives like these

Where every moment counts

I add up all the things

That I can live without

When the one thing left

Is the blessing of my dreams

I can make my peace

In days like these

I can make my peace

In days like these…

The one thing I have is the blessing of my dreams, and that is because my dreams are blessed by an awesome lover who holds all my fears and hopes in the palm of his hand. His promises are written not only in the word but also on my heart. While I have my fits, my doubts, and my bouts of disappointment, ultimately, I have his promises to return to at the end of the day.

Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

These days, I’m learning that trust is a choice worth choosing.

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