my money is not mine

shopping 2The secret’s out: I like to shop.

Clothes, candles, CDs, you name it–if it looks, smells, or sounds even remotely good, I want it. Sometimes, I need it. I’m that girl in the checkout line grabbing for the new flavor of lip balm or gum (only 99 cents!) even though my arms are already full. Of course, half of these impulse buys end up back on the shelf a week later–I’m notorious for returning almost as much as I buy–but the truth is that I’ve spent way more money on random, unnecessary items than I’d ever care to admit.

This is a weakness I’d like to work on.

For the past few weeks, my church has been going through a series on personal finance, and–judging by how much I’ve been shifting in my seat during the sermons–it’s an issue that hits close to my heart. I am, in essence, a selfish person. Especially when it comes to my money. Almost everything I do–and, by implication, almost everything I buy–is based off the question What will this do for me? Sure, occasionally I enjoy putting money in a tip jar or paying for a friend’s dinner, but my general financial outlook is one of greed, not generosity.

I suspect this is partly because I come from a generation that loves its stuff. We live in an age of advancement, with new toys and technologies popping up and down as fast as Whac-A-Moles, and we lunge at them aggressively–as though a newer, better fad won’t spring up a moment later. We abide by the motto of that adorable girl from the AT&T commercial: “We want more; we want more. Like, you really like it, you want more.”

But if we tend to have more, quantitatively, than the generations before us, why does the quality of our lives seem so comparatively poor? My family was wondering this over dinner recently. My dad brought up an essay he’d read in Time years back, which explained the difference between this era and all the others: While people used to expect hardship–famine, drought, death from childbirth or even a common cold–people now expect happiness. We believe that not only should life be “fair,” it should be fun–filled with delicious food and exciting entertainment and everything else we’ve scribbled hastily onto our never-ending wishlists. We want trophies and treasures and the misty American dream.

We want more; we want more.

For young Christians especially, financial responsibility can be a real challenge. Just the thought of tithing–giving a whole 10% of our already-microscopic incomes–makes us cringe. In a culture of blurred lines and countless shades of gray (puns intended), we resist the black-and-white problem that tithing poses. It’s too mathematical for us. Too “legalistic.”

But as my pastor’s been reiterating, God doesn’t want our money; he wants our hearts. Because when we tithe–or do any sort of selfless giving–we fall a little more freely into his arms. We surrender control, trusting that God will keep his grand promise to return our gifts exponentially, to “throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it” (Malachi 3:10). We also get to help him build a magnificent kingdom here on Earth, using the resources–great or small–that he has granted us.

Granted–not given. Because nothing we have is actually ours–it’s God’s, entrusted to us temporarily.

My money is not mine.

This is a very convicting perspective. Almost, sometimes, too convicting. It can make you question anxiously every financial decision you make. Even now, as I suck the dregs of my drink through my straw, I’m thinking, Did I really need to spend $3 dollars on this? Should I have saved it for the Salvation Army bucket or something? It’s good to be intentional in our giving, obviously, but I don’t think God wants us to be motivated primarily by a sense of guilt. And I don’t think he wants to deny us the pleasure of an occasional indulgence.

This is, I think, where the church sometimes slips up. While the world tells us to keep our money close, the church encourages us to cast it as far away as possible–Africa, preferably, or at the very least a local charity. It’s a commendable idea to donate so much, of course, but let’s be honest–it’s not very practical or appealing or even, I think, entirely biblical. Christians use verses like 1 Timothy 6:10 to condemn the rich, but nowhere in the Bible does the Lord say that wealth itself is evil–just the love of it. This means that–gasp!–Christians can both serve God and make a good chunk of change.

In fact, many of the Bible’s most righteous characters–Abraham, Joseph, David, Solomon–were unfathomably prosperous. Of course, such fortune served as a way for these men to give back to their communities, feeding the poor and caring for widows and doing all the charitable things that people in power have the privilege–the responsibility–to do.

Sometimes, though, it was just fortune for fortune’s sake. As he’s shown throughout his Word, God likes to rain down his blessings on his people, sometimes for no apparent reason other than to please them or to honor himself. Because make no mistake: God is glorified through the art we create here on Earth. And more likely than not, that art–think the Sistine Chapel or Handel’s Messiah–is going to cost some serious cash.

As author Lauren F. Winner put it in an essay defending art patronage in the church:

The God who impoverished himself is also the God of abundance, and somehow, perhaps at times nonsensically, Christians are called to live out of an ethic not of scarcity, but of abundance–an abundance that extends both to the homeless neighbor and to the artist neighbor.

moneyThe Lord bestows his blessings uniquely. Some people get more, some considerably less. But instead of griping about “unfairness” or trying (however admirably) to even the scales, we ought to be pleased with our portion, use it wisely and well. The challenge, then, becomes finding the balance between excess and shortage, between financial gluttony and self-induced starvation.

What we need to understand is that it’s not inherently “bad” to want nice things. Our souls are inspired by beauty, so it’s no wonder we crave any piece of it we can get. But when this innocent longing morphs into an avarice we can’t control, we turn into addicts, returning again and again to a fountain of wealth that–sweet as it tastes–never truly satiates our thirst.

The problem, as C. S. Lewis would say, is that we’re too easily satisfied. We settle for the cute or sexy or immediate or fun, when something as glorious as beauty lurks just around the corner, waiting to be claimed. The problem is, we’re not patient enough to sift through the shadows to find it.

If we could direct our desire for beauty toward the eternal, rather than the ephemeral, our money would be so much better spent–and our lives so much better lived.

Starting today, this is what I’m going to try to do. I’m not going to let myself feel ashamed for buying an occasional necklace or latte or movie ticket, because I believe that beauty and joy are vital to our souls, and it’s demeaning to think of the world and all its whimsies as purely utilitarian in value. But neither do I want to spend my money as carelessly and self-servingly as I’ve been doing for most of my life.

Because at the end of the day–at the end of my life, when the Lord lifts my soul out of my body and leaves the rest to rot–my money is not my own. In fact, my money won’t matter at all.


find the beauty-full

The Poetry of earth is never dead. –John Keats

This line rings true to me as I sit outside on a crisp autumn morning, sipping a latte, watching the life of the city swirl around me like the leaves that have just begun to drop. Everybody shivers when the wind picks up, yet the sun still reigns in the sky, and the air smells new somehow, and quiet. October is a poetic month indeed.

MountainIn the past few weeks, as autumn has started to really seep in, I’ve been sensing more deeply this “Poetry of earth” that Keats found so sweet. Beauty, I’ve noticed, is both sudden and all around, like the breeze that sweeps into this street from all sides. Sometimes beauty is loud and sure–a symphony, a kiss, a sunset dripping down a mountainside. Sometimes it is shy–a pile of broken bricks, a dead bird in the ditch. You have to search for these secrets; they are not so freely found.

But this seeking after beauty is so essential for our souls. It is, I think, what ultimately sustains us.

I’ve recently started a new job as a receptionist at an art museum in downtown Sioux Falls. Mostly this consists of me skimming Facebook and reading novels while I wait for visitors–hardly glamorous stuff–but the environment is pleasant to work in, with the cavernous galleries to my right and the wide, second-story windows to my left, presenting to me the quaint world outside: a long, slow scene of small-city life.

Considering that the museum is a part of a public building, it attracts a myriad of customers. The last one to come through, an elegant woman clad in New York black, seemed to know more about the featured exhibit than I did. That pleased me, somehow–it was nice to know that, even in a largely homogeneous city like mine, people still crave beauty, culture, the bright color that bursts forth from art. Our souls are not satisfied with a sepia-toned world.

In college, my English professors talked often about the place of art in society, and the pressing need for it in the Christian sphere especially. One even had us write our own philosophy of beauty to ensure we took the concept to heart. And I did, deeply, partly because it was so new to me. I had attended a Christian school since fifth grade, but I had rarely, if ever, been encouraged to consider the role of art in the church–at least as anything more than some generic worship songs before the sermon or a few Hobby Lobby prints on the bathroom walls. I’d been taught, implicitly, that the making of art was merely a hobby, the appreciation of it something to do in your spare time. Because in the end, fostering beauty was not as important as feeding the homeless or building schools in Africa. In the end, art was useless.

But the more classes I’ve taken, the more books I’ve read, the more world I’ve seen, the more I’m realizing that the Lord is nothing if not beautiful, and we would be telling a great lie if we refused to acknowledge that. God is first and foremost a creator, an artist, and we were crafted in his image. This means that what makes us human–what makes us special in his eyes–is our ability, our innate impulse, to create something from nothing. To make art.

This call to artistic excellence is not unique to the wealthy or Western alone. The missionary Margaret Ho often wondered how to reconcile her need for beauty with the barren poverty around her. Finally, she decided that art was not a luxury for the lucky alone, but rather an essential means of making God known: “My attitude toward beauty and order, as reflected in my home and lifestyle, says much to the people around me about the God I serve. Therefore, I want to reflect . . . something of the artistry, the beauty, the order of the one I’m representing, and in whose image I’ve been made. To me, sacrifice does not mean ugliness.”

In Christian culture especially, there seems to be a certain disdain for the lovers of art: “You spent how much on that painting?” or “Music major, huh–what are you gonna do with that?” I myself used to fear a creative career because it wasn’t what others would consider “practical,” and it didn’t contribute obviously to the kingdom of God.

But what I’d forgotten was the glorious grace of the Lord, the gift of life he’s given me freely–the gift I could do nothing to deserve, whether I spent my life bringing Bibles to third-world countries or secluded in a studio at home, sweating to perfect my craft, trying to bring a little more beauty into the battered lives of those around me. Both of these lifestyles, I believe, are legitimate Christian callings. We need to submit to the passions that tug on our heartstrings–practical or not–because they were placed there by God, and he can work through all things–all things–for good.

PaintbrushesAndy Crouch says, “Art and worship stand together on the common ground of the unuseful. . . . If we have a utilitarian attitude toward art, if we require it to justify itself in terms of its usefulness to our ends, it is very likely that we will end up with the same attitude toward worship, and ultimately toward God.” Ignoring beauty, then, is akin to ignoring the Lord–and honoring it thus akin to honoring him.

It saddens me that American Christians are not cherishing this truth. In fact, the “secular” sphere seems to be embracing it much better than us. Sometimes it seems that the biggest proponents of art–the ones who move me most in their pure love of beauty–are the last people one would expect to see in a sanctuary.

I learned this firsthand last week, when a man sidled up to my desk at the art museum. He was a little funny looking, with a belly that ballooned out like a gourd and oily hair that fell in a few limp strings onto his shoulders. His clothes, mismatched and loose, were soiled in spots, as though they hadn’t been washed in weeks. When I asked for his name and address—basic information the museum requires of all guests—he stumbled over the spelling, a lisp lacing his stutter. I nearly considered calling security.

The man wasn’t pleased when he learned that the museum, which used to be free, was now charging a seven-dollar admission fee. Still, he reached reluctantly into his pocket for a crumpled ten–one of the few bills he had–and laid it quietly on the counter, like a sacrifice. The act seemed to have shrunken him small. Yet there was a new dignity about him as he proceeded into the nearest gallery, a certain grace in his silence, the opening of the tall glass doors like the reverent entrance to a temple. The moment felt somehow spiritual, and I felt ashamed for having judged him so superficially.

Here was a man who recognized the sheer, soul-stirring power of art.

That evening, as the sun was beginning to settle down for the day, I climbed the steps to the enormous third-floor gallery to close it up. The light switches are on the opposite side of the room, so after I flicked them off, one by one, watching the room fall gradually into rest, I had to walk back to the entrance through the dark. Draped in such shadow, the space felt suddenly charged, eerie even, the Native American portraits on the walls seeming to stare at me like they knew my name.

But it wasn’t a sinister darkness, nothing from a horror movie–if anything, it reminded me of heaven, the dim, dense mystery of the home where God dwells. And with the tall, stretching ceiling and the sharp chill of the air, I certainly felt as though I’d stepped foot in someplace sacred, a cathedral of sorts. This was holy ground.

So on my way out, I sent up a small prayer. I thanked the Lord for letting me into these little pockets of beauty, for the glimpses of glory that hide in plain sight, all around me, every day. I asked that he would give me the courage to seek them out, even–especially–when they evade me most. I asked for the strength to stare, because, as Flannery O’Connor would say, there is nothing that doesn’t require my attention. God breathes in the peripheral, waiting to be found, waiting to be declared. The Poetry of earth is never dead.

chasing the wind

Last week, I lost all the files on my laptop.

Documents, pictures, music, everything–all of it gone, stolen, scooped out and scrapped like the guts of a pumpkin, leaving me with nothing more than a hollow, dried-out shell. And that night, when I cried off and on like a faulty faucet as I realized the extent of the damage I’d done, I myself felt empty, drained.

It doesn’t matter how it happened. (Let’s just say I should never again be allowed near a malfunctioning device, because I will begin to blindly press buttons until it self-destructs.)

What does matter is the fact that all my data is now forever lost. It may seem silly to mourn an inanimate object, but considering how much of myself I’d poured into my computer–the thing was practically my Horcrux–it certainly feels like a death of sorts. As a writer, I’m devastated that so many of my essays, stories, and poems have been reduced to ash, like art from a studio that suddenly caught fire. Thankfully, I can retrieve some of these writings from old emails and drives, but there are many I’ll never read again–many photos I’ll never see, many playlists I’ll never hear–and the finality of that haunts me.

WindI’ve never been one for goodbyes, unless I’m saying them first. Losing several loved ones has made me wary of endings–and change in general. As a nostalgic person, I tend to remember the past as more beautiful than it actually was. So I clutch onto it hard, refusing to let go, even after it’s let go of me. When it comes to holding onto what I want, I’ve got a strong grip.

Lately I’ve been sensing that I’m in period of transition, a place between milestones, some snaking stretch of road linking the place I left (college) with the destination I’m trying to reach (career). While all this open space in front of me is freeing, it’s also caused my life to take on a kind of treadmill quality: I run and run and ultimately get nowhere, the prize–whatever it is–still dangling just out of reach.

I know I shouldn’t complain. Lately, job opportunities have started falling from the sky so fast I’ll soon have to choose which to catch and which to let drop. And between family dinners, nights out with friends, and my seemingly bottomless to-do list, my life has started to pick up a speed it’s craved. I feel happy, generally. Yet still I wonder what I might be missing.

This is why I’m always grabbing at the chance to travel–I want to leave my life behind for a while, see what else the world may have to offer me. So last week, when my brother begged him to take him to a concert in St. Paul, I agreed, despite the short notice. Since I moved back from the Twin Cities this June, I’ve been plagued by this sense that I have unfinished business there–a vibrant community I miss, friends I hardly said goodbye to. I hated the idea that college was a “chapter” in my life, as though I’d written it all down, as though I could close the book on those experiences, those people. So I avoided closure altogether, choosing (as usual) to trail off in the middle of my sentence rather than cut it off, permanently, with a period.

Our trip to the Cities was short–only one night–and it was just the two of us, so it was hardly a time for soul-searching. Still, when we left the concert for Sioux Falls late the next night, the unease I’d hoped to dispel began to swell anew inside me. As we rolled farther away from the bright, blinking city, our moods grew quieter too, and soon we settled into a soft CD that mirrored my wistful mind, wrapping around me like a blanket. For a while I lay back in my passenger seat, tired yet too pensive to sleep, watching the pushpin stars poke through the black fabric of sky. I could see my eyes reflected in the window–disembodied, semitransparent, two glass orbs glinting in the dark, like crystal balls that showed no fortune, only the concern of one confused college grad.

Yet suspended in space like that, they seemed so ethereal, eternal even, the way I’d imagine my soul to seem. So transcendent compared to this life I lead now: finite, fleeting, yet still, somehow, full of hope.

I’ve been reading Ecclesiastes lately. At twenty-one, I haven’t seen everything under the sun–not even close–but sometimes I can really relate to Solomon’s world-weariness. Often it feels that all my efforts to fill my life are nothing more than “a striving after wind,” a vain attempt to hoard all my blessings at once.

But these earthly pleasures are as ungraspable as the gusts that sweep suddenly through our lives, knocking everything over. My problem is that I want it all put back together, as whole as it once was, when the truth is it was never whole to begin with–and probably never will be. Neither the past nor the future is perfect.

One of my writing professors wrote a compelling blog post for Art House America, “Summer and Liminality,” that deeply resonates with me. In it, she describes living in the shadowy liminal space between what was and what will be: “It is a time of disequilibrium, imbalance, teetering at the edge of the unknown.” But being on the brim of things has its own beauty, this prodding way of pushing us past the threshold, into the place of true transformation. She writes:

I believe that our lives, our stories, are ultimately meaningful. We are marooned in time, and within our ever-evolving pilgrim way, there is a strange goodness in the places where we learn to hold the faint mysteries of the eternal while at the brink of earthly affliction and darkness. With nowhere else to go, liminal space bids us to anchor ourselves in the present moment, to hold the anxious tensions, to see and feel and love more deeply the beautiful and broken world around us.

Fall 2This fall, I want to stop craning my neck toward what could be and rest instead in what is.

As Fitzgerald writes in The Great Gatsby, “Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.” Though everyone says spring is the season of new beginnings, I find something uniquely refreshing about fall–the way the trees paint themselves new, the chill that tenses our bodies tight. The dark that descends earlier each day, making us more aware of ourselves. Autumn is a time for reinvention.

As I write this, I’m using my father’s PC, and while it’s nice enough–practically brand-new, even–it’s about as comfortable as borrowing someone’s toothbrush. I miss my laptop, that virtual scrapbook where I stored so many of my personal treasures.

Still, I’m learning to live without it. Even the night it happened, as I lay under the cushion of dark, praying for sleep, I felt buoyed by the peace that comes with a clean slate, the childlike hope of starting over.

It’s time, I think, to stop chasing the wind.

It’s time to start standing still.

introverts, extroverts, and everyone in between

Introverts have been getting a lot of attention lately. As an introvert myself, I’m not sure whether to jump for joy or go crawl in a cave till the spotlight shuts off.

I’m kidding, of course. I’m not one of those people–you know, the kind who stand solemnly by the door at parties while they wait for their prison sentence to end, dreaming of going home to tea and cats and a half-finished quilt.

But that’s the “introvert” stereotype, isn’t it? Nerdy and shy and downright antisocial. In a world where extroverts outnumber–or at least outtalk–their quieter peers, being introverted has become somewhat akin to being diseased.

In the past few weeks, though, the Internet has gone wild with all things introversion. Some of it’s self-deprecating–one post claims that an introvert’s inner monologue is “I hate everyone”–but a lot of the buzz is much more positive than that. It’s as though the world is finally realizing how misunderstood introverts are–and is trying to compensate with some pretty extravagant flattery. Of course, part of me loves this sudden praise, but part of me feels that all of this has gotten slightly out of hand.

a1f0d03234a80a877696f5ff04d41611For instance, when I came across the Huffington Post article “23 Signs You’re Secretly an Introvert,” I was thrilled that some of my own idiosyncrasies were actually being recognized as valid–and even valuable–character traits. I saw myself in so many of the signs–I like my space (#9); I’m attracted to extroverts (#11); I hate hearing my phone ring (#14); and I often sound better on paper than in person (#22). Also, since I’ve never identified with the “loner” label that’s slapped on introverts, I loved that the article showed such a broad view of the personality, going past–and even negating–the idea that introverts are simply socially awkward people.

In fact, according to the article (I’m reading between the lines here), introverts are exceptionally wise, creative, and masterful at their craft, while extroverts are superficial, insincere, and merely average across the board.

Suddenly, being “awkward” doesn’t sound so bad after all.

Of course, the extroverts aren’t keeping quiet about all this. There’s a hilarious post on Gawker that reminds the world of why it’s run, largely, by extroverts (among the reasons: they “speak at a volume perceivable by humans”).

Still, however facetious or well-meaning these articles are, I can’t help but find them pretty polarizing. They imply that we’re all either one personality or the other; either we think or we talk, we do or we be. They create a chasm that, for the most part, we can’t cross.

This is frustrating for me because I tend to find myself tugged between two extremes. I’m not overly loud or quiet, outgoing or closed off–I just am. When I took a personality test for a class in high school, I scored exactly 25% in each of the four categories. I felt so lost as the teacher divided us into groups based on our personality types; when I asked him what to do, he told me to “just pick one,” and I spent the rest of the period pretending to fit in with people I couldn’t completely connect with.

Since then, I’ve developed a much stronger sense of identity–I know now that, when it comes down to it, I’m an introvert at heart. But I’m still told regularly that I’m hard to read. And I’m not quite sure what to make of that.

I recently wrote an essay that grapples with this idea of being in the middle of things. At one point, I likened my mind to a thick fog that enveloped my car on an early morning drive:

I picture the climate of my mind to look like this—murky, mystical, a blending of the light and dark into something like smoke. Sometimes I feel I inhabit the stretch between two worlds, like I’m suspended in space, still figuring out where to land. While all around me people are stepping through doors and shutting them tight, I am stuck in the entryway, straddling the threshold, my hand on the doorknob, stiff.

All my life, I’ve been dwelling in the in-between.

My personality, I’ve learned, is neither black nor white. My soul is not black or white. My soul is smeared with color, splattered with dye, an original work of art by the original Artist–a work he lets me paint on myself, a work absolutely in progress. I find it beautiful that I both was created and am being created. The ever-changing nature of my life means that it cannot be funneled down to a definition, a scientific classification. I am more than my personality type.

Introvert, extrovert–sometimes I think these are just titles we give ourselves so we don’t have to get into the messy, intricate heart of who we really are. It’s easy to blame our behavior on our personality type, especially when everyone else is doing the same thing–even we introverts like to know we’re not alone. But sometimes I wish we could honor the in-between too, that mysterious middle ground where, I’d guess, most of us generally hover.

Don’t get me wrong–I love this new conversation about the power of personality. I think it’s crucial to understand the basic differences between people, the two main wells (community and solitude) where energy can be drawn. I just think that the issue is more complex than we’re letting on. I believe God put more effort into the sculpting of our spirits than the simple tossing of a coin. I write this, seated at a counter facing a bustling downtown street in South Dakota, I’m distracted by what Nick Carraway calls “the inexhaustible variety of life.” This isn’t New York–far from it–but this little city contains its own characters, with their own conflicts–an ocean of emotion surging within each one. Each person passing by gives me a fleeting glimpse into his soul: the sweaty, shirtless biker who winks while sweeping past; the girl hurrying to her car, headphones stiff as a helmet; the old man stepping off the trolley, nothing in his hands but a wave for the driver.

There is a great wealth of humanity here. Each person has a story to be told, a heart to be heard. We’re all layered like onions, waiting to be stripped down to our cores, our smallest, truest selves.

We are more dimensional than we seem.

facing the fear of rejection

The other day, for one of the first times ever, I tasted the sour tang of rejection.

It came in the humble form of an email, sent a week after I’d put on a crisp black blazer and what I hoped was sophisticated-looking lipstick for my first interview via Skype. The email was nice enough: “I really enjoyed meeting you,” “I was impressed with your qualifications,” “I would encourage you to apply again” . . . warm words, yet small and plain and ultimately unhelpful. I didn’t get the position, and no amount of “unfortunately”s can sweeten that truth.

To be honest, I’m not used to being turned down. At the risk of sounding grossly spoiled, I generally reach the goals I go for. This isn’t to say that my life has been charmed–I’ve certainly seen my share of death and disease and heartache. But when it comes to things like school and work, I haven’t had to try too hard. Well, I have, but I’ve always known that my diligence would pay off, that I would get the shiny black A or the promotion or the pat on the back or whatever it was I was grabbing for.

The thing is, though, I’m not really that ambitious. I’m actually a little lazy. It’s why I didn’t apply to more prestigious colleges, why I never studied abroad, why I haven’t actually filled out a job application since I was sixteen. Rather than running toward a dream with my arms outstretched and my eyes pointed up, I like to let things fall into my lap. (I’d be a terrible outfielder.)

This lack of intentionality has posed a problem for my relationships too, romantic or otherwise. I’m notorious for neglecting phone calls, text messages, emails, you name it–sometimes these things are just off my radar, but sometimes I’d simply rather avoid people than deal with them.

I can’t say for sure why this is. Shortly after graduation, as we were sharing a celebratory margherita pizza at D’Amico & Sons, a favorite professor of mine–who’d endured my unexplained silences far too many times–gently called me out on this vice, and asked if I knew why communication was so hard for me sometimes. I didn’t really have an answer for her then, but now I wonder if it’s because I’d rather be the one sought after than the one seeking, rather the one wanted than the one wanting. This would explain why I’m not very good at making new friends, why I’ve hardly had an official relationship to speak of. I don’t go out of my way to impress people.

photoRight now I am sitting alone in my living room, enjoying a rare moment of quiet in this big, cavernous house normally bustling with activity. It’s Saturday night, but instead of seeing a movie or sipping a cocktail, I’m drinking leftover coffee, watching a storm whip through the copse of trees in my backyard. Apart from a huckleberry candle flickering meekly beside me, the room is completely dark, the lightning bright in the sky like the opposite of a blink–an eye suddenly opened. When my phone flashes occasionally, it feels false somehow, fluorescent. Even the music I’m playing–so softly I can barely hear the words–is an interruption to the hum of weather around me–rush of rain, whisk of wind, thick growl of thunder. This night is a lush one.

I treasure evenings like these, when I’m free to spend time with myself and nature and the God who speaks through silence and noise alike. I have to be careful, though, that I don’t mistake this devotional kind of solitude with a selfish sort, one that wants simply to escape the world and whatever disappointments it may hold. Much as I hate to admit it, I am often motivated by fear–fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of looking like a fool. I clutch onto my pride like a child to a teddy bear; I hate the thought of someone stealing it from me.

But part of growing up, I’m learning, is letting go of these so-called securities and reaching instead for something unknown, something better. As a writer–and as a recent college grad–I’m going to have to get used to these rejection letters. I need to toughen my skin. And yet I need to learn that it’s okay to bleed, too–that I’m not always going to have it all put together, that I will never be even remotely perfect. It’s hard for me to be vulnerable sometimes, but it’s so good for my soul. (Hence this post.)

Quick, look–the sky is burning with light. Thunder is exploding like a bomb. I sit up and look around, heart hurried, half expecting the deck outside to be blazing with fire. The world is dark again, but I have been reminded of the vastness of my God, how near he is, and how much he wants my attention–mine. He is on a constant quest for me. No matter how often I deny him, he is not daunted.

I think I will go out to meet him–rain and wind and lightning and all.

life on purpose

a6d6008097f28413fd42bb6a90e0bea9It’s dusk, my favorite time of day. I’m happy to be sitting here outside, alone with my computer and coffee, on the deck of a cafe where conversation and music and the shuffling of newspaper mix in the air with the yawning whoosh of cars as they pass–a rich, sweet blend of sound. The sun, too, is lovely, splashing against the opposite wall in that bright-orange blaze so typical of South Dakota sunsets. Though the wind is whipping my hair into my eyes and raising goosebumps on my legs, I can’t bring myself to move inside. The air there is stale, and life, I’m learning, is better lived outdoors. God moves in these little breezes.

I also feel rooted to this spot, I think, because it’s the same place where my brother and I sat last night, talking so long and so earnestly we hardly noticed the evening–and our drinks–growing cold before us. We’d come to read and work, but even at the end of the night our books and laptops lay untouched on the table like the quietest company, eavesdroppers to our snowballing conversation about life and how to live it.

My brother is struggling right now with knowing his identity, his purpose. Having just turned eighteen, and on the brink of his senior year of high school, he is a boy–a man–with so many paths open to him, he may as well be standing in the midst of a maze. It’s such a turbulent time–I remember too well how confusing it was to try to map out where I’d go to college, what I’d major in, all while dealing with the mounting stress of growing up. And I think he has it even harder than I did. While I knew I wanted to live in the Twin Cities and major in English, he’s the type of guy who could go anywhere, do anything. No box could contain this kid.

This is an exciting thing, or it should be. I, for one, can’t wait to see where the Lord will whisk him off to. (Wherever it is, it’s a lucky place.) But our fast-paced, checklist-centered culture is telling him that his time to play is running out, and he’d better figure his life out fast. It makes me sad to see such a free-spirited boy weighed down by this terrible pressure to plan.

In this way, my brother and I are much alike. We both think and feel deeply. We’re both dreamers–we’d like to see the world, all of it, and somehow leave it more beautiful than we found it. But neither of us has any idea how to go about that. And that uncertainty scares us sometimes.

The good thing about all of this is that it’s teaching me the art of leaning, of letting go. I’ve never been good at trust falls, literal or metaphorical–it’s why I chose a college only four hours away from my hometown, why I initially majored in that “practical” field of education instead of the more unpredictable route of creative writing that I really wanted to take. It wasn’t until I switched my major that I began to embrace the open-endedness of life as an artist–and as a follower of Christ. Such a life is beautiful and vital and full, but it is definitely not predictable. If we think we can plot our own futures, we’re kidding ourselves.

Last night, long after the cafe had closed and our car was the last in the lot, my brother and I remained on the now-dark balcony, speaking about college and career and how they align with personality, character, calling. The night breeze danced in his hair as he said, with a wisdom beyond himself, “I want to focus on who I am, not what I do.”

I do, too. I want my life to be not about my profession but about my passion, about my relationships with God and others and myself and the holy wet earth beneath my feet. I want to make decisions based not on the world’s expectations or my own fear but on the fire the Lord has lit in my heart. I don’t necessarily want to follow the “rules.”

So last night my brother and I decided to break one of those rules, and our harmless little stunt resulted in an adventure that invigorated us, made us feel light and free. It’s good for the soul, I think, to do something reckless once in a while. To live in the now instead of the later, to have faith that things will somehow work themselves out. To live life on purpose.

It’s nine-thirty now, and I am the only one still sitting outside. The sky is charcoal, the world blanketed in shadow. The wind is churning more wildly around me. Still, this is the time of day I feel calmest, I think because I’ve grown to cherish that star-sprinkled mystery of night, that electrified travel of air through the trees, as though anything could happen.

On nights like these, I think anything could.

moving out and moving on

photoThe other day I was stirred awake by the din of power drills and the sharp smell of paint. It wasn’t early, but considering I’d rarely woken before ten a.m. all summer, I wasn’t pleased. I lay still for a minute, smothering my head with the fluffiest pillow I could find, but the racket was undeniable. When I finally twirled open the blinds, bathing my room in that bright glow of morning, I was greeted by a huge mound of debris and a cluster of dirty, tanned men standing mere feet from my face. I barely had time to witness an armful of old roof shingles raining from the deck above before I hastily shut the blinds again–these men did not need to see me in my thin nightgown and matted morning hair.

We’re remodeling our house, if you couldn’t tell. In the past month, strangers have been milling about at all hours of the day, stamping cigarettes into the patio and smearing oil stains onto the driveway and painting my beloved pink bathroom a nondescript olive green. Soon the rotting windows and siding will be replaced, the ’80s-styled kitchen will be renovated, the marble floor will be swapped for hardwood, and entire walls will be taken out in favor of openness and light.

All this, the interior designer regularly encourages my stepmom over cups of coffee, will add value to our outdated, problem-prone house. It will help it sell.

I knew this was coming eventually. I’ve lived in this house since I was six, and since then my parents’ complaints about it have steadily mounted in frequency. Too big, too old, too expensive, too whatever. And with four out of five kids now out of college–and the other heading there next fall–my parents are ready to move on too.

I don’t blame them, honestly. It’s probably time for a new chapter in their lives, a fresh white page that isn’t covered with us kids’ messy scribbles.

Personally, though, I like messy. Take my room–it’s littered with books, shoes, swimsuits, shopping bags. There are three Rubbermaid tubs from my apartment collecting cobwebs in the corner because I haven’t bothered to unpack them yet. Sure, sometimes this clutter makes me want to tear my hair out, but generally I like the comfort and charm of lived-in spaces. Lately, our house has begun to feel a bit like a hotel–new and clean and just a tad anonymous. This isn’t a negative thing, but I’m a nostalgic person. I fear the unfamiliar.

All of this feels very symbolic right now, considering my current state of confusion. I recently graduated college with an English degree that I’m still not sure how to use. I’m working a retail job that–fun though it is–has nothing to do with my career aspirations of writing or editing. And I don’t even know what city I’ll be living in this fall, let alone what kind of job I might find to pay my bills. Though God has blessed me with an inexplicable peace about all of this, I’m starting to feel the first prickles of sweat on my palms. It’s a swarm of uncertainty I can’t shake off.

Last night at dinner my stepmom explained, excitedly, the most recent developments on the home-selling front. So much is up in the air at this point–we could be out of the house as early as September or as late as next fall. I prefer the latter option, of course, but talking with her, with the hot summer breeze tousling her hair and the sunlight glossing bright over her eyes, I could sense that charged cloud of change hovering just above us. Something big will happen soon.

After dinner, I walked across the street to a coffee shop to write, weighed down a little by my backpack and all the pesky questions buzzing in my brain. I ordered a latte and slid into my favorite spot by the second-story window so I could look out at the quiet city for inspiration and calm.

As I started writing, a few flecks of movement caught my eye. I looked up to see three hot air balloons speckling the evening sky, drifting so slowly they seemed somehow unconcerned, natural even, like the smallest, wispiest clouds.

Whatever weather life blows my way, I think I will try to live like that–free, and willing to go wherever the wind sweeps me.