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.

How To Know What You Really Want (And Trust It)

By Holly

milivanily / Pixabay

We’re three French braids in to the Friday morning rush when she says it. Braiding my nine-year-old daughter’s hair started in the downstairs bathroom. Do’s, redo’s, teary eyes and a tight-fisted, straight armed stomp up the stairs followed. In her upstairs bathroom, we stand, defeated, in front of the mirror when she lets it out: “I don’t want to want perfect.”

The current and third braid isn’t perfect. I am no pro stylist, but as a mother of two girls who love to dance and act, I have a few skills when it comes to buns, braids and twists. In the School of Little Girl Locks, I consider the French braid entry-level. I have an inkling that her six words are about more than an imperfect hairdo.

In the mirror, she sees a girl defeated by perfectionism. I stand behind her – a head taller, a little further away- and I see the familiar female struggle: a skeptical, tumultuous relationship with desire.

I untwist the braid and scoop dark blonde waves into her signature high ponytail. As a faint smile emerges and her hair swings free, she says someone recently told her that her hair was frizzy. Now she strives for a tamed, smooth frame around her face, not a single escaping strand. But striving is not the same as wanting. What she really wants – even though she doesn’t know it – is something different: the freedom to be herself.

Wanting is complicated. Sneaky little shoulds insert themselves in front of our desires and act as if they have been there all along. Their mere presence changes everything. Is it, I want my hair to be perfectly smooth, or I should want my hair to be perfectly smooth? Do I want this career move? Or should I want it? Is this the kind of mom I want to be? Or is there a should or two in there? Both feel mostly true, so does it even matter if I want it vs. believing I should want it?

Yes.

Because here’s the thing about those sneaky shoulds: with them comes compromise.

A favorite artist-dreamer of mine, Elle Luna, puts it this way:
“Should is how other people want us to live our lives.  When we choose Should, we’re choosing to live our life for someone or something other than ourselves.  The journey to Should can be smooth, the rewards can seem clear, and the options are often plentiful.”

Wait. Clear rewards and plenty of options. That doesn’t sound like compromise. See how tricky this is?

Should can seem okay because it defends desire, in a tangible, explainable, Yes! That makes so much sense! way. If we dare to invite shoulds to the conversation, they are happy to join in and do what they do best: make a case for what we want. They tell us all the things a French braid will do for us – take away the frizz, free us from the worry about what someone else will think, and look better too. They present menus full of good options: one braid or two, regular or reverse, back or side.

In other words, shoulds take the straight and narrow path to “look over here.” They say nothing bad, untrue or hard to believe. They simply distract. They are so skilled at explaining that they don’t need to convince. In fact, they reassure.

And they make us compromise.

Because the thing shoulds don’t get is that our true desires are pure. They don’t need to be explained, analyzed or defended. They just are. If we don’t trust our desires for what they are and, instead, give in to trying to figure out why they are, we mutate them into plans of action that make a lot of sense but lead us away from ourselves.

When we start down the road of justifying what we want, the compromise begins. By coming up with reasons for our wanting, we change the wanting itself. And our path starts to turn, ever-so-slightly, until we find ourselves in front of the mirror, confused and defeated.

Let me give you a personal example. Ever since my love of reading began (which, sadly, was not until age twenty, thanks to high school required reading like Last of the Mohicans and Watership Down), I have collected passages from books that I love. That alone may sound somewhat normal for a writer, but when I tell you that I am not exactly picky about how many words I save from each book and that my library card number is one of three sets of digits I have memorized (along with my social security and credit card numbers), it may cause you to wonder. (Thank God for those colorful Post-It tabs and the Evernote!) Add to that the pre-laptop hours spent copying paragraphs into spiral bound notebooks and the detail that this habit of collecting words started nearly two decades before I even considered becoming a writer, and I start to wonder. What made me go to such great lengths to save other people’s words? I rarely, if ever, went back and looked at them. Why did I keep doing it?

My best answer: unquestioned desire.

If, over those twenty years, I had tried to explain why I spent my time this way or, worse, why I wanted to, I fear I would have stopped. Even now, looking back, I can’t come up with a why besides the clichéd “I did it because I couldn’t not do it.” From this seat, I can easily see the benefits to a writer that come from taking on the role of scribe for half of your life, but I can’t explain why I did what I did then.

I’m just glad I did.

At forty-two, this is what I know about pure, soul-born desire:  it doesn’t need or want justification. It just is. Acting on its behalf may seem weird or pointless, but trusting it leads us closer to our true selves.

So, tune into the things you can’t or don’t want to explain. And don’t.

But do them anyways.

Learning to Be Human

By Holly

LaughingRaven / Pixabay

I thought we were going to be the next big thing. Our yin and yang combo of poetry and prose would be the refreshing new blog that changed the world. Surely, we – my dreadlocked poet friend and I – would have thousands of followers and write best-selling books. (The Today Show may or may not have been mentioned.)

And:

Who was I to start a blog?  My formal education was the opposite of literature. Journal writing was my training. Who was I to click “Publish” in this world full of experts and gurus who have already said everything important? What business did I have calling myself a writer? Why would anyone be interested in my small words?

I was both Superwoman and subhuman in my approach to becoming a writer. A moment drenched in energetic self-belief was sure to fade into an episode of self-doubt fierce enough to paralyze. It was a vicious volley of more than, less than, more than, less than.

It is only now, three years later, that powerful adjectives like vicious and subhuman seem accurate descriptors of what went on in my head. At the time, each thought seemed, simply, true. In the brief spans when humility and bravery collided to free me to do the work of writing, I thought my fingers were typing out words despite my polarized self-beliefs. I thought more than served as motivation and less than was something to overcome.

This no longer feels true.

More than/less than is a pattern I can trace across my four decades of being. It shows up most clearly in times of transition or uncertainty. Entries into new things – social circles, college, leadership positions, jobs – swing from grandiose plans to hefty doses of self-doubt. Less than takes up more space in my head and thanks to Brene Brown’s well-known work, I have come to know it as shame – the feeling that we are inherently flawed or unworthy.

But what about the more than feelings? If I had to name them, I would call them the ugly fruit of pride. Until recently.

From TED talks and books, I learned that shame was about inferiority and a lack of worthiness. Friends, wise counselors and the media taught me that I was not alone in wondering if I was enough. So, when I first came across these words penned by shame expert John Bradshaw, I was skeptical:

Toxic shame, with its more-than-human, less-than-human polarization, is either inhuman or dehumanizing. The demand for a false self to cover and hide the authentic self necessitates a life dominated by doing and achievement. Everything depends on performance and achievement rather than on being. 

More than and less than human? And more than as shame?  I wasn’t so sure.

Looking back at my writing journey from this point in time, I feel sure of this: Authentic words come in the space between grandiosity and self-doubt, not despite them, like I once believed. For me, writing is not an act of overcoming unhelpful beliefs about myself. I do not spend time convincing myself that I will never be on air with Matt Lauer, nor do I positive self-talk myself into believing my typed words will matter. Where I thrive is in a space of surrender, not battle, and I find that space somewhere between more than and less than. I enter it open, curious, unsure about outcomes and with utter reliance on a power greater than myself. This truth leads me closer to a belief in Bradshaw’s words about shame: if being human is finding, embracing and living as our authentic selves, then anything that prevents us from doing this is not human.

Another certainty: I needed to believe I could do Big Things, that I could change the world with my words, because this was my path to worthiness. Such success would be proof that my humanness was not as flawed as I feared it could be. Ambitious goals can look a lot like dreams – even to ourselves – but a plan born from our own self-worth questions is more than thinking that distracts us from the work we are meant to do.

Shame wears many masks.

These days, I try out my growing belief in Bradshaw’s words with a prayer. It sounds something like this, “God, help me find the space between. Help me stay human.” I pray it in on my way to an uncomfortable social situation, before I speak in a work meeting, as I sit down to write a blog post. God, keep me human. With this prayer, I become more aware of my mind’s tendency toward extremes, I see my shame disguised as pride or dreams. I listen more, and better. With this prayer, I relax into the surrender that is being human.

Why It’s So Hard to Be Where We Are

By Holly

While traveling, I dream of home; at home, I imagine places I would rather be.

Anyone else have this problem?

Being where we are can be our greatest struggle. 

Over the past 3 weeks, I have spent over 40 hours in the air, slept in 4 time zones and wandered through 5 states. I traveled for business, vacation and a memorial service; I went places both alone and with my family. While working in San Antonio, I missed driving my daughters from my house to school. On vacation in Hawaii, I was homesick for my morning cup of tea, home-brewed in my ceramic hand-warmer mug. And somewhere around day 10 of restaurant eating, all I wanted was to cook a simple, healthy meal in my own kitchen. How can it be, that as we live out the extraordinary lives we long for, we crave what is quite ordinary?

When I arrived home in Seattle, a local journalist reported that we have experienced exactly 3 sunny days in the past 5 months. I scroll the forecast on my phone: all I see is rain. I dream of living in a sunny place. We watch the movie Moana; I am filled with a desire to return to Hawaii. When I return to my ordinary things, why isn’t it enough?

I can point my finger at virtues like contentment, gratitude, positivity or presence, and conclude that if I could just be better at one or more of these I would be better at being where I am. It is an answer that holds truth and can be helpful. But it is also incomplete.

We struggle to fully inhabit our earthly experiences because the human heart was created for more. We were made for longing.

In a discussion about why we love fairy tales and legends, Timothy Keller argues:

“…deep in the human heart there are these desires – to experience the supernatural, to escape death, to know love that we can never lose, to not age but live long enough to realize our creative dreams, to fly, to communicate with nonhuman beings, to triumph over evil.”

Deep in our hearts lies an ache for more than what we are living now.

When I miss my cup of tea or what the Hawaiian sun feels like on my face, it is a call to pay attention, not to scold myself for my lack of presence or failure to be content. There is something deeper going on in me. Something that was meant to be. Keller captures it well:

“Our hearts sense that even though the stories themselves aren’t true, the underlying realities behind the stories are somehow true or ought to be.”

What we strive for in presence is freedom from distraction, not desire. It is both what we miss while we are away and what we long for while we are home that make us who we are. Because what we long for represents what we know ought to be true. In other words: eternity.

We cannot be 100% where we are because of who we are: humans with hearts created for eternity.

The Day I Cut Off My Dreadlocks

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by Kari

Holly and I have been on a break for a few months, but we are back and excited to share with you in similar fashion as in the past. We are thrilled to invite you to read and comment on our prose and poetry as we discover how to become more vulnerable and free with ourselves, others and God.

And our blog has the same name even though this summer I let the dreadlocks go. Yes, I did! It was a decision I came to in a very serene and peaceful manner and for a number of reasons that are part of my faith journey that I will probably share in the coming months. Getting them cut off was a sort of Turning Point within myself. I don’t regret it and I miss them very much. This new season is more about listening and risking. And even though I don’t wear dreadlocks right now they are still part of my soul expression; working through the knots and twists within me to become more free as I walk this life with Christ.

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My soul does crash
as the scissors slash
Journey comes to end
but listen, self-friend
This expression is done not
you can fly without locks
You will forever soar
if they don’t or do once more
Holding hands with change
will promise to keep me sane
There’s a turning point within
I’m grateful for this win