God’s Sweet Spot

By Holly

I love to ask my daughters about their names. Tweener Maya, who currently wishes her name was Morgan, rolls her eyes while seven-year old Sage’s smile spreads under her lit-up eyes. I want to be sure Maya knows how she was named after two beautiful female writers, one a famous poet and the other who would have been had the drunk driver not taken her life in college. And I hope Sage will understand the multiple meanings behind her name – wisdom, its particular shade of green and the ubiquitous plant of my beloved New Mexican desert.

But it is their version of their name stories that I most love to hear, how the stories evolve over time and the details get mixed up, like Sage thinking she was named after an owl and Maya remembering the National Geographic magazine that came out the week after she was born with “MAYA” on the cover. We giggle as one story leads to another and, in the end, I feel satisfied. While they may not get all the details right, they understand the heart behind their names.

While I am convinced that Maya would be different if she were Morgan, it is how she understands and lives from the heart behind her name that matters. There are details, motives and feelings that I want to pass on to my girls about their names, but it is their own versions of the stories I tell them that will shape how they move through this world.

I like to imagine God asking me about the names he’s given me, listening with smiling eyes and open arms, patiently letting my versions of his naming stories evolve into laughter just as I do with my daughters. I picture God asking me to remember why he named me Free, New, or Wonderfully Made. I hear myself stumbling through my answers and leaving out important details.

Then, in the presence of the one who named me, I feel my fears about getting things wrong, and even my shame about not living up to these names, fade away. I understand that God had his reasons for giving us names and, just as my girls will never breathe in the New Mexico desert the same way I do, or feel the way my heart falls into rhythm when I read Maya Angelou, we will never experience our names exactly the way God does.

And this is exactly how it was meant to be.

God didn’t give us names like Cherished, Whole and Forgiven to see if we would get them right. He didn’t call us Washed Clean or Child of God to load us up with expectations and pressure.

God simply wants us to grasp the heart – the love – behind the names he gave us.

He wants to hear our versions of his stories, however crazy and far off from his intentions they may be. Because, more than anything, God wants to meet us in his sweet spot – the place where his story meets ours.

What Prayer Can Be

By Holly 

When I look at this photo, I see my 42-year old life.

A journal for every year but one. Spiral bound, real leather, and everything in between. Beauty passed on to me through hands of dear friends and family. Some years fanned out with order, others piled up, more than a few still trying to find a place. Places. I see those too. The beach with the rising January sun, where I spoke my wedding vows straight from the plain little brown journal whose cover I always intended to decorate. Our first home in a small town in Washington, a humble spot in which some of the most formative stories of my life were written.

When I look at this photo, I see prayers. Writing to God was the only thing that felt right for so many years. In these pages, I asked and thanked. Apologized. Asked and thanked again. These pages are where I promised to do all sorts of things better and parroted scripture in letters to God that said all the faithful, hope-filled things. It was the only way I knew.

When I look at this photo, I feel compassion. For the girl who didn’t know God could hear the hardest things – the most un-Christian thoughts and hopeless feelings. For the twenty-something young woman who thought knowing God was different than knowing herself. For the thirty-one year old trying to fix her broken heart by doing things better.

And I want to tell her how, five months ago, I sat at my kitchen island, looked up at the orange blown glass pendant light and told God I was mad at him. I want her to know that, as I listened to my two daughters singing in the playroom, I slammed my pen down on the counter and, just as my fingers let it go, said – right to God’s face, with a full-on teenage tone – I am Sick. Of. Feeling. Stuck. Done.

Most importantly, I would tell the girl who filled these journals how God did – and didn’t- answer. He didn’t criticize me or leave. I didn’t hear any “should” or “shouldn’ts.” No, God answered with a gift, a project with a purpose. It came in the form of a six-week class to help women learn to trust themselves through meditation and writing. The whole thing flowed out of me in ninety minutes, while Lion King music blared and my girls sang and danced in the adjacent room. I felt as if my self and God were one. Holiness in real time, in the middle of a messy kitchen on a weekday afternoon.

On that day in May, I had no idea what would become of the six-week class. (So far, I’ve taught it in half-day workshop form – an incredible experience!) But on that day, I knew this: God responds to authenticity by coming close. Really close.

When I look at this photo, I understand how where I’ve been has brought me to where I am. I have a sense that growing in faith isn’t about having more trust or less doubt, but pretending less. I want to fill new journals with stories of how God comes close when I give him my broken, ugly parts. Like when I mocked Hosanna the poet’s words, “I am free, free indeed!” and told God I didn’t feel free, or when I told God I felt rejected and, in the most compassionate way, He said “Me too.” Because God gives me gifts, stories, love, guidance, compassion and freedom – yes, even that! – when I give Him the real me.

Trying to Understand Yourself? Read This Book!

By Holly

“It’s her four-ness,” I say to my husband as we analyze our youngest daughter’s latest emotional outburst. As the angry man in the aisle seat raises his voice while criticizing the flight attendant to her face, I think about an eight’s comfort with conflict (and wish I could rescue the poor woman from his wrath…). When I find myself intellectualizing my emotions once again, I consider my five tendencies.

After studying the Enneagram this summer, number typing is giving me new glasses to wear. A personality framework that some scholars believe originated as early as the 4th century, the Enneagram consists of nine types represented diagrammatically by interconnected points on a circle. I have a thing for ancient wisdom made new, which is exactly what happened when modern psychologists and theologians added their insights to the nine-pointed diagram in recent years, so the Enneagram, unlike other personality tests, has held my attention for entire season.

My usual pattern is to take a personality assessment, research the framework, think about my results for a week and then move on with my life, feeling enlightened but unchanged. But the Enneagram’s complexity and fluidity has helped me understand myself more deeply and feel more compassion toward others, even the angry passenger in 17C.

When I start speaking in numbers, my ten year-old daughter rolls her eyes and moans, “Mom, you’re obsessed!” I share my excitement with a book-loving friend and she says she tried the Enneagram and it was too gray and complicated. At the same time, other friends and family members find it as fascinating and relatable as I do and we have enjoyed lively, Aha! moment conversations filled with numbers throughout these sunny months. And so it is with personality tests: there is no One Size Fits All.

Enter Reading People, Anne Bogel’s new book. In the middle of my nine-pointed summer, I learned about this new book and thought it was as serendipitous as me and Type Five. Anne (perhaps better known as Modern Mrs. Darcy), a lover of books and personality tests (and an Enneagram Type Nine, in case you are wondering), covers various personality frameworks including the Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, Strengthsfinder and more in Reading People. She writes:

“I’ve come to think understanding personality is like holding a good map. That map can’t take you anywhere. It doesn’t change your location; you’re still right where you were before. But the map’s purpose isn’t to move you; it’s to show you the lay of the land. It’s the tool that make it possible for you to get where you want to go.”

Anne recognized the problem of TMI when it comes to personality testing, causing Who-Am-I confusion, paralysis and overwhelm, and she set out to make understanding ourselves more accessible and less intimidating. Alongside her thought-provoking explorations of her favorite tests and theories are vulnerable stories about how she has applied typing to her life. From her journey to unbelief in the old parent-child roll of the dice called “goodness of fit” to her reluctant acceptance that she is more a purveyor of possibilities than layer of plans, we experience the how of personality testing, not just the what in Reading People.

Now I am back to my Enneagram “obsession,” and reading people in numbers. I am also recommending Reading People to anyone interested in learning more about themselves, because while the Enneagram isn’t for everyone, but understanding yourself is.

*You can preorder your copy of Reading People by Anne Bogel before September 19 on Amazon or Indiebound (which is super cool!) and get some pretty cool bonuses! Details here.

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.)