Who Do You Need to Be Free to Be?

By Holly

collisionone / Pixabay

Excitedly, I check my parking job a few times before squeezing myself out my barely-opened car door and climbing the skinny stairwell up to the ferry deck. Parades of windows showcasing the Puget Sound, a slow buzz of morning voices, and the cozy smell of coffee invite me to settle in for the twenty-five-minute ride to Whidbey Island. This is the life, I think as my eyes drift to jigsaw puzzles lying in waiting on long, skinny tables. I imagine back and forth passengers, piecing them together, ever so slowly. The puzzles represent so much of what my soul craves: a different kind of time, community, being en route to a better place.

Ferries and islands can seem like the answer to my deep longings. But the same thing happens on this trip to an island that always does. My dreams of a life surrounded by water that seemed so perfect, so like me, transform into my reality: After a couple of days on an island, the reliance on a state-run transportation system – and the weather – for so many things feels scary instead of romantic. I start to feel the opposite of free. On the ferry back to the Washington mainland, I pass by abandoned puzzles and find a seat by the window. My island-living conclusion is the same as always: Living that degree of stuck requires a level of surrender I do not currently possess.

I am reminded of my need to be free. As Whidbey Island shrinks into the distance, I think about how personal our definitions of freedom are; I lament that I am not spiritually mature enough to feel free no matter what.

Someday, somehow, perhaps I will live like I believe my freedom is independent from circumstances. Or maybe I will always go back and forth from this conviction like a ferry, and the best I can hope for is longer and longer stays on the island of freedom within me.

On the in-between waters of the Puget Sound, two essential questions surface. First, what do I need to be free from? My answer has more to do with how I think than where I live. Shame, worry, and pain: these are my shackles. Am I likable? Lovable? Will she judge me if she knows my whole story? Reject me? Am I doing enough? What if my kids end up messed up? Because of me?  If I stop and feel my pain, will it ever stop? I think about changing where I live, but live as if I can’t change how I think. If captivity can come down a single fear, it’s this: permanence. It’s being afraid that I will never be liked, loved, accepted, known, or enough.

Freedom’s second question feels more hopeful: Who do I need to be free to be? I know some “right” answers: my “true self” or “who God created me to be.” But what does that look and feel like, when in any given day, I switch from mom to writer to friend to marketer to physical therapist to sister to wife? After a lifetime spent trying, what I know is this: I need to be free to be a woman who surrenders. In my journey to freedom, I shed more than I gather. I find my strength in my weakness. It’s more like a free fall inward than a ride on a boat to a place faraway.

As we dock, I descend in the narrow path to my minivan. Emerging from the belly of the ferry, I begin a new drive home.

A Birthday Month in Books (for #ReadUpstream)

By Holly

In May, I turned 42, an age I strongly prefer to 40. I’m not sure if it’s the mathematical symmetry, the youthfulness of the “2” or an indication of my genuine acceptance of this midlife decade. This birthday marks over 20 years of book loving. I was a late bloomer in the reading department, thanks to slow, painful (and assigned) 400 page descents into the worlds of rabbits and the French and Indian War, neither of which I cared about as a teen. Finally, as a college sophomore, I fell in love with Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and have been holding books in my hands ever since.

Last month I held something new, a birthday present from my mom that I wasn’t sure I wanted: my first eReader. A lifelong lover of books, mom is one of those early adopters who has been reading on Nooks and Kindles for years (and trying to convert me.) When I opened the birthday box, I laughed and may even have called her a “Kindle pusher,” but it was also love at first sight. I knew I was ready for this next step in my late-blooming reading career.

Part of my excitement was due to a growing list of titles on my “To Read” list that are only available in eBook format from my beloved library. I dove right in and read more books in May than I ever have in a month. I know how I feel when I see my Goodreads friends mark one book after another as “read” when I haven’t finished a book in a month, so here I will focus on my three most surprisingly impactful reads from May. I start a book with hopes of being changed somehow by the end – moved, affected, connected, disturbed, enlightened, inspired – and I am more interested in learning about how someone is affected by a book than how good they thought it was. What follows are three unusual books and how I am different because I read them:

Unmistakable: Why Only is Better Than Best by Srinivas Rao

I am an Unmistakable Creative podcast junkie, so this was the first book I downloaded to my new Kindle. Srini’s thoughtful questions and out-of-the-box guests fill my head with new ideas when I’m solo in the minivan, so I was eager to find out what he has learned about being unmistakable after interviewing over 500 creatives. His definition of unmistakable as “art that doesn’t require a signature” has stuck with me, and I could feel my self-trust growing with nearly every percentage increase on the bottom right corner of my Kindle screen. I am in a season of life when new dream-prayers are forming, and I emerged from this book with a new confidence in my intuition and instinct, what Srini calls “the two most unmistakable elements of art.” In recent weeks, as I write, I find myself digging deeper for what is true for me and worrying less about whether it is for others, and I credit this book for pushing me to this new layer of truth seeking.

Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence by Matthew Sanford

            The storyline of this one is enough to make you move it to the top of your “To Read” list: paraplegic becomes yoga teacher. I chose it for the exploration of mind-body healing more than the specific yoga component. Reading his experience with spinal cord rehabilitation as a Physical Therapist, I felt remorse for my profession’s tendency to idolize the body and neglect the mind. I deeply understood, with a lump in my throat, the author’s frustration with doctors’ presentation of his “paralysis and its accompanying silence [of more than half his body] as things to overcome, as obstacles that [he] must regularly confront and then actually defeat.” He challenged me to define what “overcome” means to me: embracing and integrating the hard stories of our lives more than defeating them and moving on

. Over the past year, I been working on unlearning a story I tell myself about stories. I used to believe the best stories in life are the ones in which someone endures something hard, then goes on to do Something Big with the very thing they overcame. To me, Something Big meant start a ministry, nonprofit or grow an online movement that changes the world. These are good stories, but they are not the only good stories or the best stories. In Sanford’s words, I am moving toward sharing “not what I wanted my story to be, not what I thought it should be, but what my story was.”

Immortal Diamond by Richard Rohr

            Books that merge God and the true self always capture my attention. And this one does it with an irresistible title! Surprisingly, I was more struck by Rohr’s observation of what happened when we made Jesus “only divine” than his discussion about true and false selves. In pulling Jesus out of the Trinity and choosing to focus on only his divine nature, “we ended up being only human, and the whole process of human transformation ground to a halt.” Wow. Rohr has challenged my dualistic mind before (The Naked Now) and here he did it again. Instead of saying Jesus is both divine and human or Jesus is God, he claims Jesus is “the union between God and the human.” This is a mind-blowing distinction for me, and has sent me on a quest for the human in Jesus and the divine in me. Or, as St. Catherine of Genoa so precisely put it: “My deepest me is God!”

As I transition to June, I’m ready to switch to lighter reads. I’m hoping for a summer of fiction, part paper and part Kindle.

(This is a post for #ReadUpstream, a hashtag that may become a movement, started by lovely, local writer friends who have hearts for promoting classics and out-of-the-ordinary books.)

Two Things I Thought Would Never Happen

By Holly

I call them dream-prayers. They are the deep desires of our hearts that are completely out of our control and so implausible that the only thing to do about them is pray. I’m about to tell you about two of mine, but first, a bit more about why they are both dream and prayer, not either/or. We tend to use the word dream for our biggest, most important goals in life. The right combination of discipline, persistence, Passion Planners, mentors and luck could make many of our dreams happen. In other words, God is a helpful add-on, but not necessary.

Not so with dream-prayers.

Dream-prayers don’t have steps, maps or logic. Their path is surrender, not pursuit. Surrender as in letting go of control, yes, but also to the truth of whatever the desire is within us. We must accept that our deepest, most impossible desires are a permanent part of us. They won’t disappear because we are sure they could never happen and they won’t back down when we try to convince ourselves they aren’t that important. Dream-prayers are born out of wanting, not needing, and being honest with God about what we want, instead of what we think we should want, does not come naturally. This is why they aren’t 100% prayer.

Before I tell you how my two dream-prayers unfolded, you need to know their backstories. The first one: When I met my husband in graduate school, I was a closet Christian who practiced faith with my journal and the occasional opening of a pink paperback Women’s Bible. He fell into the SBNR (Spiritual But Not Religious) category after growing up in a non-practicing Jewish-Catholic home. As a teenager, he attended a few church youth group events with a friend and decided religion was not for him.

And the second: College, graduate school, marriage and work took me further and further away from my family in Ohio until I eventually found myself with a job, two kids and a house in Seattle. Living a 5-hour plane ride away from my family was not what I ever hoped for or intended. Two unsuccessful attempts to move back to the Midwest pushed our roots deeper into the  Northwest, thousands of miles away from my parents and two sisters.

Over the years, my desire to practice my faith grew, as did the challenge of doing it alone. As I got to know God better, I wanted my husband to know God too. But he remained a spectator of my religion. Closed doors on cross-country moves did not subdue my desire to live close to family. One sister moved to Washington D.C., another remarried and was in Ohio to stay.

Circumstances made what I wanted seem impossible. But my perspective changed when I read these words in Bruce Wilkinson’s little book, Prayer of Jabez:

“we are expected to attempt something large enough that failure is guaranteed…unless God steps in.”

This was my cue to create something new out of my heart’s desires: dream-prayers. I started praying big, specific prayers about my husband getting baptized someday. And I prayed that one day, I would live close to someone in my family.

Here comes the part where I tell you how, from this point on, I prayed incessantly and never stopped believing these two things would happen and then they did. Only this isn’t how it went.

Hope in what seems utterly impossible is a “thing with feathers” but, for me, instead of singing, hope flies. It’s a winged thing prone to wandering, and my desire, not my belief, brings it home. I did stop believing in my dream-prayers, but I never stopped wanting.

Unsplash / Pixabay

So, I prayed. A lot. But not incessantly. When you write the same dream-prayer words in one journal after another, year after year, it gets old. Things don’t change, and you give up. Then, like hope, you keep coming home to desire. You find yourself back in the familiar territory of surrender, praying the same prayers, writing the same words.

Before I go on, there are two things you need to know:  First, both of my dream-prayers involved other people. I’m not sure this is a dream-prayer prerequisite, but it is one way to be certain that the outcome is not within your control. What we can and can’t control gets fuzzy fast when it comes to goals, dreams and prayers. Second, no one knew about my dream-prayers – what they were or how I prayed. Looking back, I’m not sure what to make of this. I know my true desire was for my husband to come to faith naturally – for himself, not for me – so I kept that one to myself on purpose. I’m not sure why I never told anyone about the other one, but there is something in me that feels privately protective of my dream-prayers, like they are between me and God, and that’s it. This is me, and it may not be you: there’s no one right way when it comes to sharing dream-prayers.

Back to what happened: As it turns out, prayer doesn’t depend on our belief. And dreams don’t die when we take breaks from them. In 2013, my husband was baptized. In 2016, my younger sister and her family moved from Washington D.C. to Washington state. As if that weren’t enough…three weeks ago, they moved into their new home less than 1 mile from ours.

To witness God working silently, separately, on hearts living in the same home, to watch 2,761 miles between you and your sister shrink to a 10-minute walk is to understand, without a doubt, why dream-prayers don’t have maps.

Here is the part where I tell you how I hope knowing how my dream-prayers came true will make you never give up on yours because anything is possible and your dream-prayers can come true too. But this is not what I hope you will take from my story.

What I want most for you is to have a dream-prayer. You don’t have to believe it is possible to pray for it. Praying anyways is part of the dream-prayer surrender. All you need to do is trust the desires of your heart that won’t go away, the ones that keep popping up in your life and are so big they could never happen without God. This is how you will know it’s a dream-prayer. It is real, it matters, God put it in you, so be true to it. Pray anyways. The rest will work itself out.

What Happens When We Actually Listen?

By Holly

sbroady / Pixabay

When others repeatedly tell you that you are good at something throughout your life, strange things can happen. Of course, the door to the ego opens wide and it can go to your head.  More likely, the praise ends up buried in a mental compartment labeled something like “already good at – just like everyone else – so I don’t need to work on it.

We normalize our strengths and work on our weaknesses while the reverse would be much more helpful. This is what I did with listening.  Friends, family, teachers and coworkers told me I was good at it; therefore, becoming a better listener never made my list of self-improvement goals.

It was an unlikely event that changed this – dinner with friends at one of my favorite Asian restaurants on a rainy Saturday night. It was the kind of evening that you look forward to for weeks because you will be with some of your favorite people sharing wonderful food and adult conversation while the kids stay home.

As we slid into the ornately carved wood booth, my mood shifted to unusually light and happy. My typical reserved nature was overshadowed by an impatient desire to be the one talking. There were things I wanted to say, and, with conversation flowing steadily among four couples, it was hard to get a word in. Laughter, stories and a scrumptious family-style meal filled the table, time passed quickly, and goodbye hugs were exchanged with satisfied, mutual fullness.

On the way home, a familiar restlessness swept through my mind. I replayed the evening, wondering why I had been so focused on what I wanted to say. I recalled a specific moment – holding my drink in the air as shapeless words floated around it – when I appeared to be listening to a story but I was really listening for a space to tell one of my own.

And that was when it hit me:  We can listen for or listen to. I am pretty good at listening for things, and not just for my turn to talk. In a single day, I catch myself listening for what I expect my daughter to say when I ask her why her clothes carpet her bedroom floor, confirmation of the stories I make up about myself, criticism from a colleague, bickering sisters, grumpy cashiers and judgmental moms.

In The Listening Life, author Adam McHugh puts it this way: “In listening for, we are listening like a prosecuting attorney, trying to uncover a hidden motivation, catch the person in a contradiction or find something to confirm our suspicions. We are setting the trap, posed to say “aha!” at any second.”

It’s not hard to find what we listen for.  But what will we find if we listen to?

A couple of years have passed since that lovely dinner that changed my relationship with listening. Through trying and failing and trying again, I am paying attention to how I listen and learning what happens when I listen to:

Someone I find hard to love says something hard to hear. In my head, I roll my eyes, I criticize. Something stills me just enough to listen more, to listen to. Buried beneath his rough words hides a precious dream. My judging heart turns soft.

Listen to, it connects who you are to who you want to be.

     A group of friends is set to gather at my house.  A few people cancel.  I wonder why they’re not showing up; stories of being not-good-enough speed through my mind.  I pick up my phone again to glance at a text and read the words on the screen , instead of the ones inside my head.

 Listen to what IS, instead of for what may or may not be. 

     I show up at the gym with a goal in mind: calories to burn. I am determined. Halfway through the elliptical, the right side of my body screams, “stop.” With one foot on the machine, I pause. My number of calories seems more important than my pain, so I go on. Two days of fatigue and irritability follow.

Listen to your body.  It has something to say.

     I hear birds sing a winter morning into light. Later, a fog horn calls to life beyond land. Still later, the hum of my empty home’s furnace preparing for my family’s return.

Listen to your places, they speak the language of your heart.

     I interrupt my husband – again. I wonder what he was going to say as my mouth keeps moving. I’ve run over his words with some of my own; a faint, familiar emptiness sets in: a moment lost.

Listen, for fullness.

     Something triggers pain from the past. Suddenly, today is yesterday. I am who I used to be.  But, when I listen to what is happening now – words spoken from loved ones who are trying and changing, fresh silences born out of healing, sounds of this year’s rains tapping taller, stronger lodgepole pines – it brings me back into presence.

Listen to now.

What will you listen to?

When Good Ideas Seem Like Dead Ends

By Holly

jarmoluk / Pixabay

You know those ideas that seem good – so good that they could even be from God – but then they don’t work out?  I had one  just last month. It came to me unexpected but complete, like a sudden, clear vision. I saw myself as a volunteer mentor for a local nonprofit that I deeply admire.  The planner in me took over, and I thought of that Steve Jobs quote about life only making sense when we connect the dots looking backwards. I was sure this would become my story of pieces of the past falling into their perfect place in the world. Weeks of prayer, research, networking, emails and texts followed.

Then, I stopped to listen: Silence. Dead ends. Space. Not yet.

I didn’t understand. My idea made so much sense. It seemed so good. Pure. Selfless, even.

It’s weird when God doesn’t pave the way for our good ideas. What starts out as an “Aha!” moment can so quickly spiral into to self-doubt and confusion. I am not convinced we are meant to connect the dots of every “no” we meet in life, but I do love it when what seemed like a dead end becomes a breakthrough. And this is what happened with my idea.

More like a painting in process than a reverse connect-the-dots, my story is not about making sense of “no.”  It is not about the amazing things that never could have happened in my life because this one thing never did. It feels broader than that, like an unplanned brushstroke that causes the painter to reconsider her entire vision.

I knew things were going to unfold differently with this particular “no” because of the feelings that came with it.  Instead of questioning or becoming more determined to make it work, I felt surprised. I never expected it to go this way. It scared me too – how many other things in my life had I left unquestioned, charging ahead with a healthy dose of self-determination, because they seemed good and made sense? A truth was emerging that seemed bigger than an answer to why my idea wasn’t working out. It looked something like this: Becoming more of who we are meant to be requires less from us, but more of us.

There is a part of me that could have made my idea work. Made up of persistence, desire to help others and deep longing for the story of my life to be a compelling one, it is a sliver of me that is less inclined toward pride or fear. If God approved of certain parts of us more than others, this one would get a nod, wink and thumb.

But we break ourselves into pieces, not God. We separate into good and not good enough, disintegrating what was intended to be a whole surrender. And this is what makes our good ideas just as fragile as our bad ones.

It is also why we must listen. Not just for the answers to our questions or approval of our good ideas, but for all the divine whispers that pop up in a day, coaxing our pieces back together.

I still don’t know exactly why my idea didn’t work out. But hearing that surprising “no” made me a better listener. Or at least a more frequent one. And that is enough.

For now.