“When you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.”
– Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace
“When you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.”
– Frederick Buechner, The Alphabet of Grace
I can’t remember a time I didn’t know in my gut I wanted to be a writer, or that just as ardently, I wanted to be a wife and a mother.
Sure, as a child I also thought I might be a ballerina or a taxi driver, but even so, in my imagined future there would always be a pad, pen, husband, and brood of children awaiting my return.
As a child I was also a dreamer, a questioner, and a deep thinker. At three, I wrote my first story (a morality tale), attended my first West End musical (Starlight Express), and engaged in my first theological argument with a playmate while swinging from the tree in his backyard.
My parents often shook their heads, wondering, where did this child come from, but indulged my imagination as I re-enacted musical numbers on my Fisher Price roller skates, expounded on theories of what my stuffed animals did at night while I slept, and asked questions like “What does it feel like to kiss a boy?”
But somewhere along the line I started believing the lie that I couldn’t be fully me, fully in relationship, and fully loved. At some point I decided the only way to survive was to carefully hide the deepest parts of who I am, giving myself and others only glimpses of that creative, imaginative, insightful little girl.
In November, when we Elevate girls were sending around initial introductions, Molly asked us to respond to the question “Where would you like to see yourself in 14 months?” Here’s what I wrote:
I would like to be writing creatively every day (or at least 5 days of the week). I’d like to have a solid blog with posts that I’m seriously proud of. I’d like to be able to say “I am a writer” and know that there’s substance to back up that claim. I’d like to either be enrolled in a master’s program or know definitively that it’s not the right time to go back to school. I’d also like to have begun a family or be pregnant – but there’s only so much planning we can do for that (yes, yes, the fun is in the trying…)!
Fast forward to January at the Elevate retreat, and I’m struggling to really own these dreams.
I have applied to and interviewed for a master’s program in theology, arts, and imagination (that I am so in love with, because it is so me), and I’ve started training for a half marathon in late August, but I’ve thrown the blog idea out the window (I’m still working on my voice!). I’ve pushed pause on the idea of immediately starting a family. Sure – my husband and I still agree to have fun trying, but we have decided the stress of ovulation strips and monthly devastation is taking a toll on our relationship, not to mention my sanity.
The word I claim for 2014 is “Flourish.” To grow, to create, to thrive. I declare I will renew my commitment to creative pursuits, to boldly step out and pursue a theological education, to train myself physically to be strong and fit and in the best shape I’ve ever been. I barely mention my dreams of having a baby.
Two days after the retreat, I’m holed up in a Starbucks bathroom in Laguna Niguel, peeing on a stick, partly because I’m a week late, but mostly because I want to know if it’s safe to drink the bottle of wine I’ve just bought to bring to my best friend’s house where I’ll be staying the next two nights.
And there, in the Starbucks bathroom, I see my future blooming in two very distinct, very bright blue lines.
A trip to the doctor and I discover our baby will be arriving in September. Just five weeks after that half marathon I’ve been training for.
On Valentine’s Day I get the call telling me I’ve been accepted into the grad school program I’ve dreaming of. I’m in! The director tells me I’m brave and impressive and they want me. They are confident they can learn just as much from me as I can from them. Giddy, my husband and I pour teeny tiny glasses of champagne to celebrate life, love, and the dreams for which we are designed.
But I’m going to be a mama. And the baby is due three weeks after school begins.
So this is where I sit for a good month: fatigued, nauseated, and completely FULL of emotion.
One of the intentions I set for myself this year was to “be humble.” When asked my reason for choosing this way of being, I responded it was because I wanted to have a realistic viewpoint of my capabilities – I don’t want to be puffed up, but I also don’t want to be so deflated I lose confidence. Humility is a personal value I have; it’s also, in my belief, a fruit of the spirit of someone walking closely with God.
After our January retreat I scratched out “be humble” and replaced it with “be strong.”
So now here I am, almost forced into humility – because really, which one of us can ordain the timing of the creation of new life? But I’m also called to be strong – and now it’s not just for me, but for the little life growing inside me.
I’ve always said God has a great sense of humor.
With barely a baby bump, I’m already feeling the need to protect and arm myself in a mother bear fashion, ready for the opinions of others. To some, like my grandma, from the beginning the obvious answer was to keep moving forward:
“Women have been having babies and going to school for decades now. Why should you be different? Don’t give up your dream!”
(Love that woman.)
To others, the obvious answer was that having a baby trumps personal ambition. And honestly, as much respect as I have for women who seem to do and have it all, at first I agreed the latter plan was the best choice for me.
I generally do best with only a few important things in my life – I’m a deep diver, an all-or-nothing introvert who needs time and space to process and practice new things. I always pictured myself as the new mom who holes away for the first few months, learning all there is to know about this new tiny creature who requires so much time, energy, and care.
What if I could be the mama student with the baby sling and bag full of books? What if I could still pursue all I dreamed of this year? (Okay, with the exception of the half marathon. At 8 months pregnant? No way. Not happening.)
What if I could be an example to my child, showing him or her how important it is to pursue our passions, to get clear on our values, and synchronize our lives with what we know to be real, true, and holy?
What if I could still complete the program in the two years I have left here before my husband and I are relocated?
What if there was some creative option I hadn’t yet imagined?
I contacted the school and explained my situation. Within a week, I had chatted with my very encouraging admissions counselor and met with a warm and welcoming registrar, who helped me set up what seems to be a manageable schedule.
I enrolled. And I start classes this May.
In one month, I’ll be driving my pregnant self to Seattle three days a week to study theology, art, and imagination, with a personal focus on creative writing. I’ll be getting a head start on the studies I’ll put on hold next fall as I welcome my sweet new baby (to hole up and process and practice to my heart’s content). The plan is to pick those studies right back up where I left them at the beginning of 2015.
But as I’ve been reminded in this season, a lot of life can happen when you’re making plans. As I keep walking forward through 2014, I pray I will do so with an open heart, open mind, and open hands, ready to receive whatever comes next.
“Thus, when you wake up in the morning, called by God to be a self again, if you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.” – Frederick Buechner, Alphabet of Grace
This isn’t a fun post to write, which is a bit surprising, since I love Frederick Buechner and have always deeply relished the wisdom in these words.
Recently I’ve been reading a lot about the cost of discipleship – Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a great read if you ever want to feel challenged (and when you start thinking that Facebook arguments qualify as religious persecution). Jesus asked his disciples to leave everything behind to follow him. Everything – jobs, family, possessions. When they gave him their resounding “yes” their lives changed dramatically. Their feet made them followers of Jesus.
Last night at the Bible study my friend Lauren I host for the high school girls at our church, we talked about the dramatic changes that happened after that fateful night on the road to Damascus. Saul of Tarsus wasn’t just a curmudgeonly tax collector (as a kid, I think I imagined him much like Disney’s cartoon version of the Sherriff of Nottingham); he was a zealot who not only “breathed threats of murder;” he hunted, captured, and imprisoned Christians who ultimately would be tried and stoned to death. He, being an avid student of the Jewish law, was a passionate man on a mission to stop the spread of Christianity.
And then he met Jesus on the road to Damascus; he was blinded, he was captured by grace. In response, he said “yes” – to whatever God was calling him to.
Where did his feet take him? They led him to the synagogues where he preached the words of Jesus to the Jewish people. They took him throughout the Roman Empire to spread the gospel to the Gentiles. They took him to prison, to miraculous conversions, to places where he could write epistles of instruction, exhortation, encouragement. Paul’s simple “yes,” his act of putting one foot in front of the other to follow God’s call on his life, meant his life was completely turned 180 degrees. Yes, he was still the passionate, zealous man he’d always been. Yet he had a new found purpose. He was a living testimony to the power and the grace of the resurrected Christ.
Right, so it actually seems a little disingenuous to now turn the spotlight on myself, but for the sake of truth telling, it seems I must go there briefly. So where are my feet taking me during this season of life?
Here’s the honest truth: if my identity is formed by where my feet take me (what I actually DO as opposed to what I say I want to do or believe in), here is who I am:
What the what. I am such a lazybones. Especially since I am sitting in a house that still needs to be unpacked (we’ve been here for 4 months and our books are still in boxes).
But … I’m feeling a little nudge to also add the following:
One thought that comes to mind is that I tend to be pretty quick to judge myself (and hey – you know what? In the matter of Facebook trolling and Netflix bingeing, it’s probably good to judge myself a little). Another thought is a reminder that I am a woman in transition. We recently packed up all of our belongings and moved clear across the country, now faced with the task of decorating an adult-sized HOUSE as new HOMEOWNERS. After four grueling years of medical school, my husband is now a MEDICAL INTERN. In the ARMY. First world problems? Sure. Still stressful? Definitely.
Even good change is change. And change leads to stress. And a big part of stress management is self care. And you know what I do to manage stress? I sleep. I watch movies. I bake treats. I take baths. On good days, I go for runs. So there you have it – in this season of life, I’m doing exactly what I set out to do when I decided to quit my job and take a sabbatical.
But aren’t we called to more than this? Even if I make a daily habit of writing on this blog and my writing improves (oh please Lord, let it improve! I feel so rusty), what else am I doing with my life? Am I actually living out the life of faith I claim I have?
Here’s what I do know: I wasn’t called to be a missionary overseas (well, at least not yet). I wasn’t called to teach English literature in an inner-city school or teach English as a second language in Japan (had those doors slammed in my face). So far, it seems, I’ve been called to be a writer and a student and a friend – maybe even a counselor. I’ve been called to love a man who owes many years to the Army. I’ve been called to love the Lord with all my heart, mind, and soul, and to love others as I love myself.
Yes, Paul is a tough act to follow. Yes, I need a swift kick in the pants sometimes, especially when I am feeling lazy and unmotivated. Yes, there are still so many things in my life – relationships, possessions, old ways of thinking – that I still cling to, sometimes desperately, that hinder me in my walk with the one whom I call Lord.
I’m going to sit with that tension for the rest of my life, I am certain of it.
And yet. I am comforted by the knowledge that he who began a good work in me will carry it out to completion (Phil 1:6). It won’t be in my timing, and in won’t be due to my effort. But it will be totally, undeniably due to his incomprehensible grace.
In the meantime, I’m just going to keep on walking.
In honor of Throwback Thursday, here’s a little gem I wrote when I was 20.* I am itching to do a rewrite, but for now, here’s a little glimpse of my sophomoric heart.
I had wanted a fish on my ankle. One of those ichthus-I’m-a-Christian-and-drive-a-Honda fish like I wear proudly on a James Avery bracelet and draw aimlessly in the sand when lounging at the beach. I had always wanted a tattoo, and it seemed to me that the only way to reconcile that desire with my conservative upbringing and—according to Cosmo and emode.com—my classically practical style would be to decorate my ankle with a stylish, dainty fishlet of the traditional Christian variety.**
That was, of course, until the summer I was nineteen, when I decided I was actually going to go through with it. My aunt, the same one who took me to get my first perm when I was eleven, told me that she’d be more than happy to take me to a reliable looking tattoo parlor while vacationing in California. Doodling in my journal several nights before the much-anticipated day, I deliberated over my choice of placement. Suddenly pictures of old ladies running with wrinkly, tattooed ankles flashed through my mind. Continuing to stare at my soon-to-be-inked skin, I wondered if perhaps my foot wouldn’t be better. My best friend down at Baptist-central Baylor University told me that it was “totally hip” to get an ichthus on the top of your foot, kinda like the Dixie Chicks and the chick tracks over their sun-tanned tootsies. I imagined a little fish, tickling my toes, pretty in sandals and hidden in tennis shoes, ready to be seen when I wished.
But a fish? I began to think it might look like a cheddar cheese goldfish cracker or a key chain you would find in Family Christian. I needed to spice things up a bit, but how?
Shouldn’t a tattoo be something personal? Determined, I flipped my Bible open, skimming the pages for traces of highlighter and pencil rather than relying on my faulty memory (I didn’t exactly ever make it up to Bible Quiz at summer camp). Maybe I’d find some little verse that I could squeeze inside my tiny fish to make it look fatter and filled. What I found – or should I say what found me – jumped out as I hit the end of Proverbs. It was a verse that I had underlined and starred and highlighted several times, part of the “Wife of Noble Character” section that a mentor had assured my Bible study group had less to do with being a wife than being a deliberate woman of God. I stopped, feeling goose bumps jump up and down my arms. Proverbs 31:25. Perfect. Frantically I set my pencil back to paper and for the next half hour traced circles and squiggles and signs. Smiling, I snapped my journal shut.
“We don’t do feet,” the pierced, purple-haired girl behind the counter explained to me. “When you tattoo feet the ink bleeds, and besides, one day you’ll get lots of wrinkles there.” Drat. My wrinkled-old-lady-with-pristine-feet plan was foiled. I handed her my folded slip of paper and tried to remember the last time I had seen my grandmother’s feet. As she looked it over, the buff, pony-tailed artist who would be handling me came over and shook my hand. When he saw my kindergarten sketch, he smiled. “Cool. Give me fifteen minutes and I’ll see what I can do.” When he returned, the sketch had not only been artistically rendered and dramatically improved, it was also three times bigger than I had intended. Doe-eyed and sweaty palmed, I told him I couldn’t possibly put something that huge on my ankle. “Then why put it on your ankle?” he asked.
Why put it on my ankle? The ankle seemed less offensive somehow, as if a passerby could rest assured that it might just be something temporary picked up at the drugstore, a pretty little picture that could be covered, if necessary, by a quick cross of the leg. Not like a Popeye the Sailor-strongman arm tattoo or those tacky lower back tattoos that scream when you lean over, “Look at me! Look at me! I have a tattoo!” Of course I didn’t tell him this. I went back to the large books of patterns available to customers, and a few minutes later came sheepishly back to the counter. “Here,” I said, showing him the tiniest cross in a corner of a laminated page. “I want this instead. On my ankle.” It reminded me of the logo on camp brochures that I had seen every summer in the San Bernadino mountains. Sure. That was personal. Memories of friendship and commitment were surely more meaningful than a little cracker goldfish. Not to mention smaller and less painful than my own creation. He gave me a knowing smile and told me to think about it for a few minutes. “However long it takes,” he said. “I like your design. You’ve obviously thought a lot about this; don’t give up on it so easily because you’re scared.” He glanced back at the cross. “ I don’t like to stamp people with something easy. We don’t stamp here; we create art.”
So I sat. And thought. And sat. After fifteen minutes had passed I decided that I needed to excuse myself and go to the one place I knew I could always think clearly: the restroom. After squeezing past artists, gazing wide-eyed at the pictures plastered over the walls of particularly daring men and women, I shut myself inside the tiny room and began to pray. What on earth was I doing? Could I really go through with it? Why did I even want to do this? I took a deep breath, and as I did the walls of the restroom faded away.
A flash of burning orange and yellow-beamed clarity struck me senseless as the water quietly lapped the shore. Exhausted, disgusted with my own frailty and inability to recognize the futility of my pursuits, I was sitting dejected on a spider-webbed dock leaning out into the lake. My freshman year of college was drawing to a close, and nothing was certain. The seniors that I had idolized were graduating. My roommate and I were at odds. My parents were thinking of moving. Projects and papers were coming out of my ears, and my carefully constructed plans were falling to shambles. “God,” I muttered, half plea, half curse, as the calming water reached out to me ever so gently. In silence I waited as summer blew in gently on the breeze, unwrinkling my brow and softening my face. I belonged here. I had known that if I came outside, to the wind on the water and the sun in the sky, I would find peace and strength in the stillness. Be still. The pink of the clouds, that pink moment that Grammy used to call me out onto the porch to drink in when I was small, trickled its way inside to that hollow place I had locked so tightly. Be still and know. Through the tears, the sighs, the broken prayer, I knew. How could I have forgotten where to place my trust?
My brown eyes stared intently back as I looked hard at myself in the mirror. I whispered, “She is clothed in strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.” So I laughed. And with strength and dignity I marched out to the artist and handed him the sketch of my tattoo. “I’m ready,” I announced, “and I want it on my lower back.”
There is a work of art that colors my body. Orange and gold, the sun shimmers as it sets into the cool blue green water, reflecting its rays on the surface and into the depths where it reads Proverbs 31:25, and illustration becomes reference. Placed so keenly out of my sight and only occasionally in the view of others, it often surprises me when someone else mentions it. One night of my sophomore year a freshman lit up when she realized who I was. “So you’re the one with the tattoo!” she exclaimed. I straightened my Ann Taylor blouse and tried to listen as if I was used to being identified by my body art. She told me her roommate sat behind me in a class first semester, and had seen my tattoo when I leaned over. One night she came home and asked to borrow a Bible – a book that she had never been interested in opening in her life – to figure out what so important to me that I had it inked on my back.
I don’t know if a Body Art Ministry movement would ever take hold. All I know is that without even looking at my tattoo, I know it’s there. Like the hand of a protector on the small of my back, I feel it gently nudging me forward, ever reminding me to laugh, to let go, to drive out to the lake and watch the sun set.
*This post originally appeared on www.rightnow.org in the summer of 2002.
** Fun fact: while we were dating long-distance, my husband secretly went to the tattoo parlor one day and got an ichthus tattooed on his bicep. It is hands-down the sexiest tattoo I have ever seen.
The other night I attended a potluck barbecue hosted by my new friend, Jess. It was one of those perfect Pacific Northwest summer evenings when the blue fades to gold and the air takes on a shimmer that seems to promise the season will never end. Jess was the loveliest, most gracious hostess and spent the evening refilling glasses of sweet strawberry sangria, praising her friends’ cooking, and making sure we all had a chance to play horseshoes or corn hole.
It was while I was playing my first round of corn hole that I first noticed Nina. Perched on a stool, brown eyes sparkling, she giggled with a friend and offered commentary on our game. Now let’s be clear about something: I am not good at games like corn hole. (Or darts. Or bowling. Or mini golf.) True, sometimes I’ll have a night when I get the bean bags in that hole again and again and again (this may have something to do with what Jess referred to as the “beer-in-one-hand” balancing system). But not usually. Most of the time, I am consistently, objectively bad at these types of games. One friend recently said “you’re very precise…you’re just not always accurate.”
Life lesson there, perhaps?
Anyway, the night of the barbecue, I was very precisely lobbing my bean bags up into the air and onto the grass just short of the corn hole board. And sparkly, giggly, seven-year-old Nina was bouncing up and down on her stool, offering us encouragement and occasionally bursting into song.
“Oooohh….you almost got it! So close! Toniiiiiiiiight….weeee are you-uuuuung! YEAH! I’m gonna play the next game and I’m going to be on YOUR team.” She grinned right at me.
Was she for real? Was she mocking me? I couldn’t be sure. But in the face of her bright-eyed, Fun!-singing youth, I felt decidedly uncool. And old.
And was I really comparing myself with a seven-year-old? I turned my focus back to the game.
Later, I noticed Lee, another lovely new friend, talking with Nina in conspiratorial tones. As I got closer, I realized Nina was schooling Lee on all things Nina. And she wasn’t just telling Lee – she was inviting her to engage with her, to evaluate her, and to guess.
“What is my favorite color?” (Turquoise)
“What is my favorite thing to do?” (Put on makeup)
“What is my favorite fruit?” (Watermelon)
She was so joyful, serene, and confident that we all wanted to know her, to delight in her. I laughed. She was delightful! Of course we delighted in her. And yet…her confidence made me uneasy. How was it, in the face of this buoyant, beautiful child, I could feel so threatened and insecure? Was I really comparing myself to a seven year old? Again?
In retrospect, I realize I spent a lot of time that night comparing myself and my own perceived inadequacies against the strengths I saw in pretty much every other female at the party. I was on high alert – we had just moved across the country, to a new town. These women were the wives of my husband’s fellow Army hospital interns; I wanted to make a good impression but was in such a funk I felt certain to fail. One woman entered with such beauty and grace she could have been a celebrity. And I thought, Gosh, I feel so frumpy and clumsy. How does she just glide around like that? One woman told me about juggling kids and a new pregnancy with the responsibilities she has as leader of one of the Army’s Family Readiness Groups. And I thought, Gee, she is so selfless and giving and speaks about her life with such humility. Why am I not involved like that? Others manned the grill (why can’t I cook?) or laughed easily with strangers (why am I so introverted?).
By the time twilight descended I had decided I was the least interesting person at the party.
All self-pity and social anxiety aside (because really, that’s what this was), I had also decided that Nina was the most interesting person at the party. She really was. That kind of confidence and joy is magnetic.
After tiring of the questions game, Nina picked up her colored pencils and began to sketch a portrait of Lee. Portrait Lee had long eyelashes, strawberry blond hair, sassy earrings, and eyes that twinkled. In short, it was Lee. Nina, the child artist prodigy, then turned to me and said, “Ok, Erin, you’re next.”
We often laugh about the incisive honesty of children, but much of the time, we don’t like to recognize what they see in us. In their art, we may end up with crows feet or a hunchback or dressed completely in black with hair coming out of our noses.
I was terrified of what she would see in me.
But Nina was gracious. She sketched me warm and open and kind. She saw through my insecurities to the genuine delight I found in her sweet spirit and chose to focus on that. In that moment, as silly as it may seem, it felt I had made a true friend.
And it makes me wonder: how much simpler would life be if we saw through to the heart of people, and that’s all we concerned ourselves with? If we saw them as a child sees them? As God sees them? As the best version of themselves?
What if we saw ourselves that way? What if we could wake up each morning and walk confidently knowing we were designed to be exactly the way we are…and that despite our imperfections (anxieties, habit of playing the comparison game), know we are worthy of delight?
I’m not sure it’s possible, but it’s certainly worth a try.
Here’s to Nina, and here’s to all of you childlike spirits who’ve graciously seen the best in me, even when I couldn’t.