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.

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.