when the spotlight shuts off

Last year, I was famous.

The moment Troy proposed to me on that glorious morning of March 28, 2015, I was thrust into celebrity. Suddenly, acquaintances I hadn’t spoken to since high school were congratulating me on my engagement. Friends and family were showering me with gifts. My schedule was collecting events so fast I had to start color-coding them to keep them straight.

From March 28 on, I was no longer Sarah Schock. I was The Bride-to-Be.

Life as The Bride-to-Be was both stressful and fabulous. Every day, I was working on my wedding — emailing vendors, perusing Pinterest, scouring bridal shops, attending parties in my honor. Oh, the parties were fun! I got to sit on a throne as people told me how pretty I looked and passed presents my way. Who wouldn’t love that?

sarah schock | schock therapy

No matter what I was doing, though, I was constantly aware of myself. I could feel the heat of the spotlight shining directly on my forehead, and sometimes it made me sweat. As a self-professed introvert, I’m not often comfortable with attention. It was strange to know that so much of people’s time and money was being spent on me — all because I loved someone.

I don’t mean to sound conceited or ungrateful. This isn’t a phenomenon unique to me, after all; I imagine all brides experience the same thing. Pregnant women, too. Even those who have lost a loved one — all of these events are momentous, life-defining, and it makes sense that people start to associate you with them. I remember how, in the months after I lost my mom, I couldn’t look at anybody without seeing pity pooled in their eyes, couldn’t listen to them without hearing You poor thing saturated in every word. During that time, I was The Girl Whose Mom Died.

Something funny happens when you’re labeled like this: you begin to believe that’s all you are. In the midst of your mountain-moment, you become something like a stereotype — basic, one-dimensional, serving a single purpose to the story.

But it’s your story. As the protagonist, you’re entitled to as many dimensions as you please. You are bright and complex and bursting with quirks — you garden, you wear glasses, you take honey in your tea. You have a name.

When I was engaged, I tried hard to maintain my sense of self. It was difficult, mostly from a logistical stance; I didn’t have time to read poetry, write essays, do the things I’d normally do in my free time. I also didn’t need to. I was perfectly content to spend my days connecting with Troy, planning the biggest celebration of our lives. I don’t think there’s any shame in that, either.

Still, I didn’t want to be seen as only The Bride-to-Be. I suppose that’s the trouble with fame, isn’t it — you can never escape what you’re known for.

Until, that is, everything eventually blows over.

schock therapy | when the spotlight shuts off

It’s hard to describe how drastic the difference is between your wedding day and the day that follows. It’s like muting the television screen mid-static — the silence is staggering.

Even the night of our wedding, as Troy and I rumbled away from the Wisconsin barn where we married, finally and forever alone, I felt our wedding wash away from us: a castle in sand. I sat in the dark and sobbed to Bon Iver, so full of emotion I literally could not contain it all. I wasn’t sad, per se, but the sense of finality was so palpable.

It was over. It was all over.

And yet . . . the best was still to come.

The week that followed our wedding was truly the sweetest, most wonderful week of my life. Anticipating a “real” honeymoon in the coming months, Troy and I had chosen to stay in southern Wisconsin for what I called our “mini-moon.” Aside from our accommodations, we had no agenda; we woke late each morning, made breakfast, donned scarves, and slipped into the Nitro for an unknown adventure, coffees in cupholders and Google Maps in hand.

We wound up at wineries, breweries, supper clubs, hole-in-the-wall cheese shops. There was such a relaxed air about it all. In November, the small towns of Wisconsin were quiet, quaint, covered in cloud and a hunkered-down sense of community. It was like we were wandering around a dream.

sarah schock | schock therapy

The best part about our mini-moon was that we felt so far removed from everything. Even though we were only about six hours from home, the world of Wisconsin was ours. We didn’t contact anyone the entire week, didn’t check social media or even open our laptops. It was exhilarating to know that nobody had any idea where we were.

It wasn’t necessarily that we wanted to be away from our friends and family — in fact, we wondered often about what everyone was doing back home, talked endlessly about how much they’d sacrificed to support us, how very loved and blessed they’d made us feel. Our gratitude was shared and strong.

But being together, alone and anonymous and away from it all — that was the greatest wedding gift we could have gotten.

Troy and I have been married for five months now, and while that’s hardly a milestone, much has changed since our wedding. Mostly, life is calm. We’re still busy, but we’re less stressed, and we’re more secure in who we are — as individuals and as one. We’re happy and full.

Being famous has its benefits, but I like this better.

These days, I feel more like myself. I can go to a coffee shop and spend the afternoon writing if I want. I can curl up on the couch with my husband on a Saturday night, eating ice cream and watching documentaries that teach us about culture and life. I can have conversations with people without being asked about how wedding planning is going.

(Of course, that question has been replaced with How’s married life? But that’s okay. Because married life is great, and because frankly, that’s just a courtesy question anyway. People don’t care as much about the aftermath of things.)

schock therapy | when the spotlight shuts off

When you experience a major life event like this, you might feel like you’ve been pushed onstage, into a lone beam of light. You might feel as though everyone is watching you, waiting for you to trip, dance, do something. You feel the fluorescence on your face.

Your identity becomes wrapped up in that one thing: being a bride, having a baby, grieving the loss of someone you love.

Eventually, though, you go back to being yourself. You get married, you have your baby, you live — and time takes its payment, a little each day. In exchange, you get to move on.

Hopefully, your life is an accumulation, and you embrace all the people you’ve been and are: Girl Whose Mom Died, Bride-to-Be, Wife. Because the more personalities you have, the more difficult they are to pronounce. People will have to start calling you by your name, not by your reputation.

And you will have to start seeing yourself for the bright, complex, bursting-with-quirks person you are — whether you’re standing in the spotlight or waiting in the wings.

I am no longer just The Bride-to-Be. And I am no longer Sarah Schock, either. I am Sarah Klongerbo — which is an incredibly weird and wonderful thing. It’s a new identity, and it’s not. It’s who I was always meant to be.

Whatever’s going on in your life right now, remember that there is so much — so much — to who you are. You have a past and a present and a future, and they will all shape you. You are more than the person you’ve been, more than whatever you’re going through now, even more than what will happen to you in the months and years to come.

You have a name.

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young love: a non-apology from a newlywed

Hello, blog.

A lot has happened since I last stopped by.

In my previous post — which, incredibly, I published over a year ago already — I wrote about the mystery of time. The way it flourishes and fades, moving differently depending on your current stage of life. How being on the cusp of a new year can cause to you meditate more deeply on the place you’ve found yourself, how it can spur you toward change, how God can use it to bring about blessing in your life.

After a period of waiting, womb-like, for something big to happen to me, I had the sense that 2015 would be a year of renewal.

And it was.

In January, I started a new job. In March, the man I loved asked me to marry him. And in November, I did.

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image: rachel marie photographie

I hesitate to say things like “best year of my life” or “happiest I’ve ever been” because I think they’re glossy and reductive. But I also don’t want to diminish the way I’ve felt this past year. I really found myself, both in my job and in my relationship with Troy.

A person is fortunate to have stumbled upon either career or love, and lucky me — I got them both, and both within a year.

I’m not trying to gloat here. I’m trying to be honest. It’s easy to skim across life when it’s smooth, but I want to dive deeper even then — to feel the pressure against my lungs, to come up gasping for air, fully alive and grateful for it. We need to be aware of what’s going on in our lives, good or bad, at all times.

I should clarify that, although I’ve been blessed beyond measure this year, there were many moments when I felt entirely overwhelmed. Aside from the stress of wedding planning, I was often shadowed by the sense that, despite my constant busyness, I wasn’t doing enough. Or being enough. There were parts of myself that I worried were getting lost amid everything else.

For example, my writing. When I was in college, I had the luxury of learning as my sole responsibility. I was literally required to read, write, and discuss literature with people who cared about it as much as I did. College was my personal snow globe: a pretty place that was small and safe and not at all resemblant to the real world.

These days, I haven’t had much time to write. Which is absolutely an excuse — we can always find space in our lives for the things we’re passionate about. But I’ve also come to terms with the fact that this year has not been about writing, and that’s okay. Instead, it’s been about learning the field of digital marketing, designing the wedding of my dreams, and, most importantly, finding out what marriage means.

That is, what marriage means to me and Troy — not to the many marriage experts who seemed to crawl out of the cracks the instant we got engaged.

Don’t get me wrong: our friends and family were beyond supportive during our engagement. They lavished us with gifts, parties, endless help and grace in planning our wedding.

Still, there were times when it felt as though people (usually those who didn’t know us very well) only wanted to offer their advice, even admonishment: do this, not that.

It wasn’t just about the wedding, either. In fact, people seemed to think the wedding was the easy part; it was the trials to come we should be worrying about. “You won’t feel this way about each other forever,” we were warned. “The romance will fade. You’ll go through tough times.”

The problem was, we knew that. Troy and I were well aware that we wouldn’t always feel so affectionate toward one another (even then, we didn’t).

In fact, sometimes I’d become so convinced of that inevitability that I’d will it upon us prematurely. “This is supposed to be the happiest we’ll ever be!” I’d cry to Troy on a particularly rough night. “We should be taking advantage of this while it lasts!”

Now, I do have a flair for the dramatic, so some of that was surely my own defeatism rising up. But some of it, I think, was because I’d let the cynicism of others creep its way inside me. I’d heard so often that marriage is difficult that, to some degree, I’d come to believe that’s all it is.

Yet the closer we drew toward marriage, the more I began to resent the cautions of others, well-meaning as they were. For by going into marriage with a pessimistic (others would say “realistic”) mindset, it felt like we were setting ourselves up for failure, rather than success.

Let me be clear: I do think it’s important to help young people set reasonable expectations about love. And with my very limited experience of marriage so far, I know I’m no authority on the subject.

But as a newlywed, I’m not sure it’s helpful to hear, over and over again, that marriage won’t be as blissful as we think. It’s both demeaning and discouraging.

Because being happy, I’ve realized, is not the same as being naive.

Recently, a friend shared an article on Facebook that I had to applaud: “Stop Calling Marriage ‘Hard Work.'” The point of the piece was not to negate the fact that marriage requires effort, but rather to illuminate the beautiful ways in which the Lord works through it. I liked this line:

God designed marriage not only to stretch us beyond our selfishness to become more like Jesus through trials, but also to bring great joy to our lives with the myriad of gifts marriage provides.

Trials and joy. Isn’t that the balance of life?

And the way it seems to me, these highs and lows are only magnified in marriage.

Since Troy and I got married, we have experienced a richer intimacy with one another than I could have dreamt. He likes to tell people that marriage has solved more problems for us than it’s created. Not that we had a lot of issues beforehand, or that living together hasn’t been an adjustment — it has — but overall, it’s been so much easier to finally just be together, to start and end the day in each other’s arms. It’s so clear that this was what God had in mind when he gave the world the gift of love. Even just logistically, marriage makes sense.

As much as I cherish these happy months, though, I know sorrow is on the horizon. Yet I also know that sorrow was meant to make us stronger, to nudge us nearer to the heart of each other, nearer to the heart of God.

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image: rachel marie photographie

A few weeks ago, I dropped Troy off at the airport for a weeklong work trip to Orlando. It wasn’t a long time or anything, but considering we’d been married for only two and a half months and hadn’t spent a night apart yet, it felt a little longer.

In some ways, the week away from one another was refreshing. It gave us a chance to breathe, to reconnect with ourselves, to remember our individuality — the things we uniquely love to do.

Yet there were times when, I admit, I missed my husband. I feel almost embarrassed writing this, since I used to be so independent; I lived alone, loved doing things by myself. But the other week, when I returned each night to a suddenly dark, silent apartment, I felt the void Troy had left, and I wanted it filled.

When people asked how it felt to have Troy gone, though, I felt the need to minimize the fact that I missed him. I didn’t want to be “that” newlywed — the one who fawns over her too-perfect husband, the aww-that’s-so-sweet-she-still-misses-him-when-he-leaves young wife in love.

I know that Troy and I are in our honeymoon stage. That our home-cooked dinners and mid-week movie dates will soon be replaced with microwaved meals and Everybody Loves Raymond on rerun. That the tornadoes of children and sickness and death will eventually sweep their way into our world, causing immeasurable wreckage and loss.

There’s so much life left for us to live, so much heartbreak we haven’t met.

But I will not — I will not — apologize for being young and in love.

And I will not apologize for using this past year to fall into that fact. While part of me regrets that I wasn’t able to spend more time writing, reading, even going out with friends, a larger part is simply thankful for the reason I wasn’t. Because cultivating my relationship with Troy, transforming it into something permanent — that was important work.

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image: rachel marie photographie

Just wait, people have told us. As in, you have no idea what’s coming to you.

Well, I’m glad for that. If I did, I may not have signed up for this whole marriage thing in the first place. Or maybe I would have lunged for the pen even faster.

Whatever love-lens you’re looking from — whether you’re single or taken, satisfied or not — please, let love run its course. Over time, it will speed up, slow down, grow muddied and gray . . . but that is the way it goes.

Love is born pure and small as a spring. And it builds the same way: gathering strength, accepting storm, collecting soil and life as it falls to the sea.

Just wait, they said.

I plan on doing just that.

a happy new year

I am on the brink of blessing.

I decided this the other night as I sat on my boyfriend’s bed, watching a single tear drop straight from my eye and onto his sleeve, dotting the cotton dark.

I couldn’t explain why I was crying. In the last few months, wonderful things had started to happen to my family and me. My sister bought a house. My brother had a baby. My boyfriend brought me home for the holidays, and on Christmas Eve, exactly eleven years after my mother’s death, I took him to her grave so my mom could finally meet the man I loved.

Amidst all this, there were job interviews and Christmas parties and shopping trips down snowy streets; there was poetry and prayer and a blossoming of joy; and there was love, lots of it. It seemed as though every area of my life was shifting, transforming, building toward some great change. Mystery winked like glitter in the air.

It was all so very overwhelming.

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Each New Year, the world is reminded of the reality of time. It passes, it promises, it is. Time hovers above and behind and before everything we do, and we are never more conscious of its presence than that precise moment when one year clicks suddenly into the next.

This past year has felt particularly pivotal for me. Yes, I was back in my hometown, working at jobs I’d already had, spending time with family and friends I’d known forever. But there were some drastic changes too. I moved into a downtown loft with my best friend, where I could walk to work and get to know my city in a new, eye-level way. I flew to San Francisco with my brother on a why-not whim and drove to Chicago with my sister in the car I’d just bought, reminding me of the fruitfulness of travel and time spent connecting, one-on-one, with a kindred soul.

Most importantly, I fell in love. I learned to let go of the fears of commitment to which I’d been clinging, and to reach instead for the invisible hope I could hear humming just in front of me. I learned to live both in- and outside myself, feeling the freedom along with the weight that both come with being part of a pair. I learned to lean in, even when everything in me screamed to back off.

Starting with one small “yes,” I opened my heart to love, and I felt more alive and unworthy and full-to-overflowing than I’d ever had in my life. It was an astonishing thing.

So this past year has definitely been different, though not in the way I’d expected. It was very much a time of living in the now. It was an experiment in surrender, in simply allowing things to happen and not pulling them toward me or, worse, pushing them away.

Sometimes this made me feel inadequate or small–people would ask, “What are you up to these days?” and I would be forced to respond, “Oh, not much!” The combination of moving from Minneapolis back to my much-smaller hometown and working a couple of plain, part-time jobs seemed somehow shameful, as though I was supposed to be succeeding faster, or at least trying harder; after all, I was smart, I had a college degree, I was an adult now. When was I going to get on with it and grow up already?

But the real world, I’ve come to realize, is so unlike the picture we’ve been painted. It’s like learning cursive. In middle school, we would practice it over and over because our teachers told us it was the only way we’d be allowed to write in high school–only for us to get there and realize nobody actually cared about cursive. It was pretty in theory, but it just wasn’t practical. And that was perfectly okay with us. We were busy trying to adapt in other ways.

I think we set ourselves up for failure when we tell ourselves that our lives must follow a certain plan. Society commands us to pursue school, career, marriage, kids–every one of those, and in that order. But a life is such a unique thing. There is a reason we are named, not numbered–we have been given great control over the course of our lives. It’s important for us to grasp just how powerful God has made us, just how much passion he has given us, just how much trust he has in our ability to do what he has destined.

A big part of this is letting go of the lie that each new year will inevitably offer us some sort of huge personal triumph. My church is in the midst of a series called “Waiting Room,” which explores the ideas of faith and service while we wait for whatever it is we want. The other week, our pastor taught the intertwining stories of Jairus and the sick woman (Mark 5:21-43), each of whom had to wait for healing for what felt to them like far too long, but what was actually the Lord’s perfect timing. For through their patience, his goodness was glorified.

All my life, I’ve been living in anticipation of the next big thing. School sets us up for this–each year, we would count down the days until summer, crossing off homecoming and prom on our planners, casting our rods to graduation or college or whatever milestone we believed was waiting to bite at our bait. We began to think that each year would bring some sort of revolution to the ruts in which we’d found ourselves.

Since finishing college, I’ve had to discard that idea. Gone are the definitive homework deadlines, the black-and-white report cards, the clean-cut semesters in which I used to divide my life. Now I have no major events to look forward to, and the days blur together. I am discovering what my English professor meant when she said that time is a tree, and each instance, each memory, each dream a branch upon it. Time is not as quantitative as our calendars make it appear.

Time, like love, expands to fit what it must.

Last month, there was a whirlwind of a day when I attended two job interviews and was approached by a third person about a potential freelance assignment–all within the span of a couple hours. “Okay, God,” I said. “I get it.” While I wasn’t necessarily seeking a new position, the Lord seemed to be placing them right in my lap. Perhaps my wait–at least, this particular wait–was over.

On New Year’s Eve, I got an email that I had landed one of those positions. The offer was fantastic–salaried, full-time, and exactly the type of work I love (writing) and work environment in which I thrive (small team, plenty of independence). I squealed with joy, thrilled to have found something so apparently tailored to me. Still, I told myself I’d take some time to make sure I was making the right decision.

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I didn’t take long. Later that night, my friends and I found ourselves spending the final hour of 2014 at an understaffed and over-sequined club, where the drinks were scarce and the dance floor was sticky. Still, we thronged our way into it, holding each other’s hands, laughing, making the most of it all.

And when midnight hit, when the champagne bottles burst and the couples kissed and the countdown chant erupted into cheers, I made my first New Year’s resolution: to say yes to the job, and to say yes to anything else the Lord wanted to put in my path in the coming year.

Every New Year, we come face-to-face with ourselves. A mirror is held in front of us, and we are forced to confront what we see, both in our faces and in the backdrop we’ve constructed behind us. It’s a period of reflection and projection, of past, present, and future, all rolled into one.

The good news is that we get to decide what to do with that mirror. We can set it aside and forget what we’ve seen. We can breathe on the glass and draw a new face in the fog. We can give ourselves a makeover. We can choose to like the person looking back at us.

I’m still not entirely sure why I started to cry the other night. Change is an exciting thing. But after a period of relative stillness, sudden momentum can be a little staggering.

Still, I choose to welcome whatever this new year has to offer, whether it’s wild and exhilarating or quiet and small. Either way, it’s a gift.

silencing the noise

“Let me out here,” I say as the car approaches the gate. “I’ll walk the rest of the way.”

The gate is new. Crisply black and crowned by a row of short spires, it is a shout into the silence of the mountain. “Mystic Valley,” the gate proclaims in gold, Gothic letters across its length. “Private Property–No Trespassing,” it barks on a notice stuck to its middle. The signs nailed to the posts on either side are much friendlier, announcing the names of the Mystic Valley cabin owners on small, plain slabs of wood. My family’s sign is noticeably missing–but given our cabin’s seclusion at the far end of the road, and our shared desire for privacy even in an already private place, this absence is fitting.

10487999_10202361655751700_7185779212534572238_nIt’s the end of June, and my family has taken a week-long trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota to stay in the tucked-away cabin my father shares with his siblings and their families. With so many schedules to accommodate, these vacations are few and far between. Even now, we’re missing five of our eleven family members, so there’s a sense of vacancy when we traipse through town during the day or sit down for supper at night. Mostly, though, we’re cherishing this time spent together, holding it and each other close to our hearts. We know we’re experiencing something sweet.

I slip out of the car and stride toward the gate’s keypad, its technology another disruption to the serenity of the scene. But then I enter the code–so easily guessable it’s clear the community doesn’t actually worry about trespassers–and I watch the gate creak open at the speed of syrup, and I remember once more that this is a simple place, and its guests simple people. It’s a comforting thought.

And then the car is gone, whisking my siblings and my belongings and all semblance of human life along with it. I am alone. I hook my thumbs into the empty pockets of my shorts and take several crunching steps down the deserted dirt road. The gate is behind me. The path is ahead. As I walk, I tip my head toward the sloping of the mountain on my left, listen to the shushing of the stream on my right. Dust stirs beneath me, wind wraps around me, the scent of pine stains the air . . . and I am alone.

There’s something that happens when we separate ourselves. When we detract from society and all its distractions and dwell instead in the natural world, where the sky is vast and the trees are still and the wind presses a finger to our lips. Where there’s space for our thoughts to stand up and stretch, for our minds to wander awhile. Where we’re fully and finally alone.

Over the years, I have gained a reputation for forgetting–or just neglecting–to respond to calls, texts, emails, and the like. Part of it’s introversion, part of it’s irresponsibility, but mostly it’s simply an indignation–right or not–that I shouldn’t have to bow before this constant barrage of communication, that I shouldn’t have to let myself get dragged around by this leash of pests who nip and tug incessantly at my heel. I’m above all that, I say. I’m better.

But I’m not. Whatever I tell myself or others about my disdain for technology, I’m a slave to it like the rest–following my phone with a dutiful closeness, checking my computer regularly to see if it needs me. This is especially true whenever I post something new to social media. The prospect of accruing comments and likes–the currency of my generation–keeps me on guard for the flash of a notification, for that bright flicker of approval that tells me I’m pretty or funny or clever or cool. It’s a fire I lean toward almost magnetically, stretching my arm to feel its warmth.

imagesIn one way or another, I think we’re all drawn in by this flame. Sometimes it seems like everywhere I go–parties, restaurants, coffee shops, even church–people are interrupting their own conversations with the sudden need to take a photo or tweet or show off something they saw online.

Don’t get me wrong; I don’t believe that technology should be banned from our fellowship with one another. In fact, I think it’s fantastic that social media has allowed us to record and even reframe our experiences, because it’s so important for us to reflect on the course of our lives and the people that fill them. But I believe we should do all this with both honor and honesty–with the understanding that our worth is found elsewhere. That there’s a difference between documenting the events of our lives, and validating our lives based on that documentation.

We were not created to stare at screens.

I ponder all this on my walk back to the cabin. It’s a foreign world here: pulse of wildlife in the brush, curve of road to follow the creek, complete lack of both cell service and Internet access for miles all around. And yet everything feels so familiar–like returning home. Maybe it’s bold of me, but I think this–fresh air, open space–is closer to what God had in mind when he created a residence for humanity.

I like the idea of world as womb–a safe place in which to grow, to blossom into the people we were intended to be: marvelers, worshippers, lovers of light and life. We ought to trust that in giving us the four main elements of the world–water, earth, fire, and wind–God has supplied us with all the nutrients we need.

Last night, as we were driving back to the cabin, amid a darkness so dense the air itself seemed solid, my siblings and I spotted a mountain lion. Three, actually–a mother and two cubs. It was a miraculous, once-in-a-lifetime event, as mountain lions are notoriously evasive. But there they were, right on the road, caught in our highlighter-yellow headlights, crossing as leisurely as a couple of ducks. They showed little concern for our car. And then, as suddenly as they appeared, they were gone, scampering down the mountainside, leaving us breathless and still at the shock of what we’d seen.

The mountain lion is a regal animal, ferocious, fierce, and lithe. I feel beyond lucky to have witnessed one in the flesh. But I know that never would have happened if we hadn’t met the lions on their turf, if we hadn’t abandoned the neon gleam of civilization for the shadowy thick of the forest. If we hadn’t ventured out of the city and into the wild.

Think of our life in nature,–daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,–rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?

I love this quote by Henry David Thoreau–the way it exudes his passion, his pure astonishment at the beauty of the outdoors. I read it first in Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer’s account of Chris McCandless’s fatal expedition into the Alaskan wilderness. Though I finished the book awhile ago, it continues to simultaneously haunt and inspire me. McCandless was reckless, certainly; he took few precautions against the danger of his journey–purposefully–and his philosophies on life were often idealistic at best. But there was something genuine, I think, in his quest for truth. Like his hero Thoreau, McCandless believed in a world wiped clean of the taint of materialism, a world where nature, not man, was king.

While I don’t agree with such a complete denouncement of society, I do resonate with the desire to step out, step away, and experience periods of solitude and seclusion. Because when we spend time in silence, we hear more. See more. Know more. Love more.

tumblr_n6gddonEoM1sh0vsqo3_1280Twenty minutes into my walk, I realize I’ve stopped reaching toward my pocket for a phone that’s not there. I’ve stopped hoping for texts, stopped itching to snap pictures, even stopped wondering what time it is. I don’t need to know. Because right now, the air is quiet and warm. The sun is slipping through the cracks between trees like the brookwater I have bent to cup in my hands. And when I rise, wiping my wet fingers on a towel of grass, the creek is waiting to guide me, to pull me along the path, to shepherd me to the place I truly belong.

dear baby brother

My dear baby brother,

Today you graduate from high school.

Tonight you will be shepherded into the gymnasium where you’ve played and performed for so many years, one blue robe among a flock of blue robes, and an hour later–songs sung and tears shed and hats flipped wildly into the air–you will walk out the doors wearing your own clothes, clutching your own diploma, as your own man. Your friends will be beside you, and your family behind you, but the second you switch that tassel to the other side of your face, you will sense a new aloneness as you consider stepping, for the first time, into that wide-open “real world” your teachers have been warning you about. You will feel scared, probably, but you will also feel liberated and light and a hundred other emotions you won’t quite know how to hold inside your suddenly too-small heart.

You will be free. And I will be there, smothering you with all the pride and protectiveness I am entitled to as your older sister who loves you, who feels and fears for you, who is entirely and perhaps unhealthily obsessed with you.

(Yeah, this is going to be sentimental. Deal with it.)

photo 1I’m writing you this because I want you to know, specifically, how much I cherish you, and because I often suck at expressing that in speech. I’m also writing it because I know we will soon become so swept up in the gusts of graduation that we won’t be able to engage in much real reflection about you–the sweet boy you’ve been, the brave man you’re becoming. I want to be sure I honor you well during this formative time in your life.

Last week, when you and I were shooting baskets in the driveway and you asked me, casually, if I would come to a senior party at your youth group that night, I said yes right away, partly because I didn’t want you to be the only person without a guest and partly because I would do anything for you, and you know that. So I postponed my plans, and together we drove to the church and mingled with your friends and sipped punch from plastic cups, and I was glad to be beside you.

Then your youth pastor approached me and said, “So I guess you’ll be the one speaking about Matt!” My raised brows turned toward yours, and you apologized with your eyes. Public speaking has never come naturally to me, but I’ll do it if I have something to say. And if the topic was you–well, I could probably go on for hours. “I guess so,” I replied.

The plan was that one person from each family was supposed to share with the crowd three things about their graduate: a memory, a lesson, and a prayer. The pastor started things off with some sincere words about your class and the great privilege it had been for him to watch you grow. Then he invited the families to join in the reminiscing. No one spoke up, so–despite the fact that I had no idea what was about to fall from my mouth–I raised my hand.

I barely remember what I said, but you probably do, so I won’t rehash it all here. I know I talked about the trip you and I took to San Francisco last month, the persistence you showed in getting us there, the unforgettable memories we made exploring a new city in an adventure all our own. I talked about your spontaneity, your passion, the way you’ve always grasped fearlessly for whatever you want, without worrying about whether it will work out in the end. How I pray you will continue to trust your heart–whether or not it aligns with the expectations of the world.

(As I’m writing this, you’re playing the piano ten feet from my chair by the living room window. You’re wearing my pink socks, which I forgive you for because your eyes are fixated on the keys, your fingers tender upon them, and your tongue is sticking out in that little-boy focus you get whenever you enter that magical land of music. You don’t know what I’m doing over here. But I love to be doing this with you, this strange communion where I can write and you can practice and we can be together and alone at the same time. I’ll miss this when you move away in the fall.)

Anyway, ever since that night at your youth group, I’ve been thinking about what I said about you and, more importantly, what I didn’t. A few minutes of un-thought-out babbling can’t have been adequate tribute to what I’ve learned from you, or what I hope for your future. But neither would I be able to cover it in the span of a several pages, or even an entire book.

So I’ve decided to compile a couple lists, just a few lines long, about the lessons and prayers I associate with you. They’re far from comprehensive–in fact, I add to them every day.

 

what i’ve learned from you

  • photo 5Life is like music. It’s a form of art that seems like play at times, work at others, but always a beautiful, extravagant gift.
  • Relationships trump all. When given the choice between people and school–or work, or sports, or sleep, or whatever–you pick people, every time. This worries our parents sometimes–and rightfully so–but I know you have a heart that is more whole because of it. You inspire me to be someone who sacrifices myself more freely for others.
  • Money doesn’t matter. Not when it’s pitted against family or friends or even, to some extent, fun–because fun is important too, and God wants us to take pleasure in the playground of world he’s created for us. I’m glad you get me to do reckless things, like take off for a concert in Minneapolis on a whim or travel to San Francisco for no reason at all, because those moments of abandon are what make the most special of memories.
  • People were put on earth purposefully. Not “for a reason,” but for many different reasons, which we discover afresh each new day. As your multifaceted heart shows, it’s possible–and good–to love several things at once.
  • In times of trouble, turn to the Lord. I’m often humbled by how much more dedicated you are in your devotional life than I am. Though you change your mind regularly about a lot of things, you never seem to waver in your faith, even when you’re trudging through a difficult time. I’m jealous of your relationship with Jesus.
  • Talent doesn’t need to be noticed. It always strikes me that although you’re skilled in so many ways–guitar, piano, basketball, even writing–no one seems to know about it. You hide yourself away, and while sometimes I just want to shove you out into the spotlight, I love that you write songs in the quiet and shoot hoops alone in the driveway, because it reveals a modesty–and maturity–that’s hard to come by in a boy your age. You remind me that I ought to pursue my passions because they feed my soul, not because they bring me praise.
  • Let love in, and let love out. When new people come into my life, I tend to turn away, shield myself from whatever harm I fear they might bring my way. But you welcome them readily. Sometimes you chastise me for being too hard on people, and though I usually roll my eyes in response, I covet your unfailing ability to find the good in others. You love hard. And I want that too.

 

what i pray you will learn

  • photo 2You are adored. Probably more than anyone I know. Obviously, you are loved by the Lord, who hears your prayers at night and opens your eyes in the morning and carries you gently through each new day. You are also doted on by your family, who sees you always as the miracle child you are–the sick baby who wasn’t supposed to live through the night, the eight-year-old boy who lost his mother in an instant, who somehow saved us all from that tragedy with an inexplicable perseverance and peace, with your heartbreaking note to Santa written just days after her death: “My mom died, but I still have Christmas joy.” I know you struggle with feeling accepted by others, but trust me when I say you are absolutely beloved by those who know you well–you will never fathom how much.
  • Intelligence manifests itself in many forms. Sometimes I fear you believe that because your gifts are different from Dad’s, or Kyle’s, or whoever’s, you are somehow lesser. But you are wise in ways the rest of us are not, and God made you unique, a one-of-a-kind work of his wild imagination. Love your mind for the masterpiece it is.
  • Responsibility is not always overrated. I know, I know–this coming from the girl who plays hooky with you once a month, who procrastinates on every project she starts, whose bedroom looks like a junkyard of clothes. But I do hope you remember that although things like attendance and timeliness and organization are indeed minor in light of more important matters, they still matter. In college, Dad can’t call you in sick when you don’t feel like showing up to class. So shape up just a little, would ya?
  • It’s okay to cry. You have a sensitive soul, one that seems, at times, too soft for this world. But it’s not. I love that you feel deeply. I hope you will continue to let your emotion inform your thoughts, to channel it into your music and prayer–as long as you temper it with what you know to be true, and remember that in the end, it’s better to dwell in the light than in the dark.
  • Fear is a false motivator. You know that for years, I was scared of pursuing writing because I feared the unknown, feared failure. But I eventually learned that I can’t let those lies keep me from following my heart–and I am so much happier now that I’m trying to do so. I pray you will learn the same lesson. There are so many paths open to you, and they are all alluring and exciting and treacherous and good. And as long as you’re listening to the guidance of the Lord, you really can’t go wrong. Remember, Matthew, you are the only one–the only one–who can choose what you will do, where you will go, who you will become. So choose well. I know you will.

 

People are always assuming you and I are a couple–and considering we’re constantly together, and decently close in age, I can’t say I blame them. So here’s my little love letter to you, a graduation gift for the boy I loved first, and possibly always foremost. I’m as proud as could be–as proud as Mom would be–of the heart you have, the heart that’s beat on, despite all odds, despite the holes and discs and surgeries it’s endured since you were one day old, the heart that’s swelled to fit your faith and your dreams and all the many people you care about, the heart you’re growing into so very well.

So keep it strong, and keep it close. And keep me close too.

All my love,

Your big sister

P.S. Sorry for the sappiness. It’s just an emotional time, okay?!

(ad)venture into the unknown

Flight attendants, please prepare for takeoff.

As the pilot recites his line, I turn toward the window to watch the small Sioux Falls airport float slowly away from view. Through the film of frost on the glass, I can see the wing passing over the pavement–bone-white with cold–like a hand of blessing. Though the engine roars around us like static, there is a profound silence to this moment. Each passenger is alone in his head, huddled into himself, clutching a mental talisman of hope as he considers the journey ahead.

I booked this flight late last night. The day before, my friend Kaitlyn, who lives in Chicago, asked if I happened to be free that weekend to visit. I wasn’t–I was scheduled to work at the Visual Arts Center on Sunday–but her text planted something inside me. And the more I considered it–cheap flights, free place to stay, a weekend away with a friend I hadn’t seen in months–the more that seed grew.

So before I had time to over-think it–or to really think at all–I clicked my way into a little adventure.

I have to admit, I’m feeling pretty proud as the plane begins to whisk us down the runway. Yes, this ticket cost me $175 of my meager post-college cash, and no, I still haven’t found anyone to take my shift on Sunday. But right now, none of that matters. The plane is thundering forward, pinning me to my seat, scooping me up and out, into the chalk-white sky. I finger the fur of the coat on my lap and watch the earth fade away like an unfinished sentence, like faltering speech. I cannot hear it from here.

*

A few weeks ago, I saw The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The movie, starring and directed by Ben Stiller, is loosely based on a short story written by James Thurber in 1939 about an ordinary man who daydreams about doing extraordinary things. In the 2013 film, Walter Mitty, the shy, absentminded manager of photography at Life, must track down a missing negative he’s supposed to use for the magazine’s final cover. His search takes him around the world, where he sees breathtaking sights, meets fascinating people, and does incredible things. All of this swells to an adventure that’s larger and more magnificent than anything he could have ever imagined.

the-secret-life-of-walter-mitty-poster-mountainThis movie, while imperfect in some ways, completely mesmerized me. Not only were the cinematography and soundtrack gorgeous, but the message–grabbing hold of your life, pursuing things with passion–lingered in my mind long after the credits spun. I left the theater with a sense of spontaneity, a motivation to get up and go–it didn’t matter where. My thoughts kept pulling to the moment Walter Mitty, a man of routine and rut, hops on a plane for Greenland with nothing but hope in his heart–the moment he leans forward in his seat, music bursting triumphantly from the speakers, to watch the water below separate him from home, sweep him toward something entirely new.

From that point on, Walter Mitty no longer fantasizes about doing cool things–he just does them. He says yes to people instead of no. He picks up the adventures tossed into his lap. Sometimes, he seeks them out.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty reminds us that it’s never too late to start our own story, as long as we eventually have one to tell. It reminds us that imagination is dangerous when we dwell inside it too long–but downright magical when we use it as fuel, when it inspires and becomes our reality.

*

“Brothers and sisters,” calls the man with a crutch from the top of the subway car, “I ask you, in the name of the Good Lord Jesus Christ, would you help a brother out? Any spare change–please, in the name of Jesus, I ask you.” He pauses, scans the people-packed car for the sight of someone reaching into a pocket or rummaging through a purse.

No one moves.

He tries again, but after another minute of monologue, he gives up, hobbling toward the last empty seat, pulling the crutch onto his lap like a pet. For the remainder of the ride, he sits as patiently as everyone else, hardly bothered, apparently, by our lack of response–he’s used to it. He gets off at the next stop.

After three glorious days in the Windy City, I’m en route to O’Hare to head back home. The weekend has been everything I wanted–a perfect blend of activity and rest, of venturing into the city to museums and restaurants and shops and then returning to Kaitlyn’s cozy loft in the suburbs for a movie and dessert. As luck would have it, I happened to come on the coldest weekend of the year, so much of our time was spent trudging through slushy heaps of snow and, afterward, burying ourselves under as many blankets as we could find. But that was okay. The cold made us brave; it banded us together–and it banded us to everyone else, who shared in our shivering and exasperation and sudden awareness of our own mortality.

Now I sit alone on the train, bundled as tightly as possible into my thin wool coat, looking through the streaky window at the paradoxes passing by: skyscrapers touching trees, sunlight resting on snow. Moving along it like this, armored from the vicious cold, the city is brilliant and bright–a movie scene. I pull out my little black journal and write:

How could you live in a city like this and not be aware of the fullness of life? How could you not believe in how rich, how exquisite, each soul really is? How could you not take the colors and textures and mediums you’re handed (free inspiration) and make from them something lovely, whole–a work of art?

d9dd6c89f7d6c796caafbe209cec1fe1A little pretentious, maybe, but right now I’m overcome by the beauty of being here, and how overwhelmingly vital this trip has been for my soul. As a writer, I’m finding that travel stimulates my mind, for stories lurk everywhere: in each crack in the sidewalk, each face on the subway. And as a person of faith, I’m finding it stirs my spirit in the most invigorating way. It’s impossible to be complacent in a place so unfamiliar and fresh.

As the train rumbles farther away from the clustered center of the city, I look around the car at my fellow passengers. We’re an odd assortment–some young, some old, all our bodies and outfits painted different colors–but there’s a certain understanding among us. We’re all journeying somewhere, both literally and figuratively, ruminating to some degree on where we’ve been, where we are, where we’re going to end up.

So much of our lives is lived in this way–linking departure and arrival, past and present. That’s why it’s so important, I think, to do things like fly to Chicago on a whim or wander the streets in negative-fifty-degree windchill. If we live life like we’ve already arrived, we can never explore new ground.

*

Recently I applied for an editorial job back in the Twin Cities, where I went to college. The company requested an interview with me, so one foggy January morning, I grabbed a Starbucks and drove the four-hour trip to the publishing house, stopping at a gas station on the way to change out of my sweatpants. The meeting went well–conversation flowed smoothly, and the interviewers seemed encouragingly eager.

It wasn’t until early the next morning, when I set out for Sioux Falls beneath a black-and-blue sky, that I started to see the job as a real possibility. The position had come up so fast that I hadn’t had much time to consider the implications of accepting it: quitting my current jobs, leaving many of the people I love, finding an apartment with people I liked, and starting a full-time job in a field I knew relatively little about.

I won’t lie, the prospect was a little daunting. Alone in my car on a highway dark and silent as shadow, with nothing but a scratched Lumineers CD to keep me company, I felt the weight of such a sudden and enormous change.

But the farther I traveled, the brighter the world became, and I began to wonder if maybe such an abrupt transition was just what my restless spirit had been craving. I thought of the book I’d just finished, Bob Goff’s Love Does, and the why-not lifestyle it advocates. While I’m not sure Bob is really a writer at heart, I’m inspired by everything else he’s been: lawyer, activist, adventurer, family man. He believes that life, particularly one filled with the Lord, should be bold and whimsical and willing to take on any challenge, even–especially–if it scares you. Because that’s what you do when you’re overflowing with love: you do.

Ultimately, I didn’t get the job. I did get a second interview, as well as the request to apply for a different position, but I chose to let it go. Truthfully, I was fine with being rejected. I had always sensed something a little off about it all.

But I’d been ready to go. As I drove back to Sioux Falls that morning, with the sky slowly extracting the darkness from the land like poison from a wound, I told myself that if I were offered the job, I’d take it–no matter how difficult it would be to uproot my life in a matter of weeks. Because those opportunities, I think, are like handwritten invitations from God. You’d be a fool not to RSVP with a strong and resounding yes.

*

When the plane begins its sprint down the tarmac, I lean back, letting my body sigh into the stiff gray seat. After a day and a half of flight delays thanks to the record-breaking cold, I am finally on my way home. I enjoyed my bonus time in Chicago, but I’m ready to be rid of airports and airplanes and this cumbersome carry-on I’ve been dragging around.

Still, as I stare out the window at the lights streaking by, I think about my weekend adventure and feel full. I also think about my mom, who’s been gone ten years now but who joins me every time I fly, her presence more obvious here than almost anywhere else. She was always planning cross-country vacations for our family, always packing things in and out of our Disney-themed suitcases. She thrived on the tantalizing experience of travel.

Liftoff had always been her favorite part of flying. She would grab our hands excitedly as the plane raced forward, squeezing tight when the wheels finally gasped off the ground, pointing out the window at the crammed buildings and cars that shrank by the second, suddenly as small and busy and anonymous as ants.

I was never afraid of flying, but hovering so high above the intimate earth I thought I knew was unsettling to me, the way I felt whenever I tried to wrap my mind around the impossible concepts of heaven or hell. Seeing that my mom was just as fascinated–but somehow still at ease–with this zoomed-out view of the world gave me a sense of safety and peace. With her hand covering mine, the earth could be both big and small, both universal and unique.

walter-mitty-plays-soccer

Tonight, I’m flying alone. My window shows me Chicago at night, and again I think of insects–the yellow lights teeming together like bees in a hive, lining Lake Michigan so neatly it looks as though God took a knife and simply sliced the rest of the city away. There’s a great mystery to this scene, and I send up a thought of thanks that I’ve been given the solitude to be able to cherish it, the sheer independence to be able to take this trip by myself.

Still, as the plane rockets farther into the night, I mentally grip my mother’s hand and trust I’m not truly alone in all of this. To live a life like Walter Mitty or Bob Goff, we need both autonomy and support, both the courage to step out solo and the faith to know that God will go before us wherever we’re called. Because we are not called, for the most part, to stand still. We are called to step forward–to venture forth–to adventure out, into the wild unknown.

blue christmas

imagesCALKOA66Christmas: the season of cheer. A time of presents, peppermint mochas, pretty lights lacing the trees on sidewalks sprinkled with snow. A time to kiss your beloved beneath the mistletoe, to hold a candle in a cathedral and sing Silent Night to a heavenly shimmering of bells. It’s a time of family and faith and joy, and it’s absolutely beautiful.

For some people.

For others, Christmas is not, as those wistful crooners sing on lite FM, “the most wonderful time of the year.” In fact, for those who have experienced heartache or grief, the holiday season can be more bitter than sweet. Sometimes, it’s downright painful. I should know—I’ve been there.

Ten years ago, on a dry, ash-gray Christmas Eve in South Dakota, my siblings and I came home from lunch to discover our mother lying dead on the kitchen floor. I’d been playing outside with my brother, actually, when we heard our sister’s scream. The horror didn’t hit me until we came inside, saw our mom slumped on the marble, blonde hair limp along her cheek, black shirt unmoving with breath. My sister tried CPR, but the cardiac arrhythmia had already claimed her. She was gone.

From that moment on, Christmas was forever tainted in my mind.

The year it happened was, of course, the hardest. While I was trapped in a house of anxious firemen and shrill telephones and a family shocked into silence, the neighbors were flaring up their fireplaces, sitting down to sugar cookies and The Santa Clause. My dad later drove us to our grandparents’ house for dinner, but being around family only reminded me of how small ours had suddenly become, how permanently changed. There were many tears that day.

The next Christmas season was difficult, too. We’d pulled ourselves together by that point—if only by the thinnest of threads—but now we were forced to confront our grief afresh. Not only did Christmas mark the anniversary of my mom’s death, but thanks to the nostalgia the holidays tend to elicit—Hallmark movies, Amy Grant songs, children’s reenactments of the nativity scene—we began to miss her more than ever.

Yet all this time, while I outwardly hated the red-and-green happiness that seemed to mock me everywhere I went, there was a small part of me that wanted, however selfishly, to join in the fun. After all, I was still a kid. I saw the sparkly wreaths and the cool new toys and the families bundled in coats as they shopped, and I was jealous.

Couldn’t my Christmas be colorful, too?

This holiday season will mark my tenth year without my mom, and while I’m no longer a child, I’m still torn between the pain and pleasure that Christmas evokes in my heart. On one hand, I resist the false promises it seems to spew, the over-the-top glee, the glossy pictures of laughter taped to the windows of Starbucks and Gap and all the other shops hoping to sell a bit of holiday cheer.

But on the other hand . . . I like peppermint mochas. I like snowstorms, parades, stockings hung on the chimney with care. And I like Jesus. This is his holiday, after all. And it is without a doubt one worth celebrating.

Today it is November 23rd, and I can sense a new energy sizzling in the now-icy air. Even now, as I sip a festive hazelnut latte in my favorite coffee shop, the people around me are chattering excitedly about their holiday plans, many of them still wrapped in the coats and cable-knit scarves they came in with. My sister, sitting across from me, is compiling her Christmas list. In the corner, a man in flannel laughs at something on his laptop.

Years ago, this scene would have upset me. How could these people smile so wide, when my family was dealing with such a devastating loss? Didn’t they know that, for people like us, the holiday season hurts?

Now, though, I can only smile back. Over the years, I’ve realized that it’s okay to house both sorrow and joy in my heart, to simultaneously honor the past and dwell in the present, looking to my future of heaven as my ultimate hope.

Because as important as it is to remember my mom, and to cry with my family when we stand in the snow by her grave, it is just as crucial to cherish the sun-streaked whimsies of this world, to delight fully in the rich life Jesus has given me—the life that, as Christmas reminds us so well, he came to our dark, dirty earth to provide.

untitled5The holidays are all about give-and-take—give a gift, get one in return. So it is with our hearts. One day, you’ll be making snow angels on the glittery white ground, and the next you’ll be sobbing into your pillow, pining for what once was, vowing never to leave your safe, soft bed for the wind that whips just outside your window.

But that’s all right. Because the Lord, in his infinite goodness and grace, will soon come sweeping in to hold you, to touch away your tears, and—when you’re ready—to help you up, and head slowly toward the door, toward that place of true happiness and warmth.