Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Selling Myself

If I never write another statement of purpose (aka "personal statement" or "statement of intent") it will be too soon. Unfortunately, I still have three SoPs left, and that's assuming this is the only time I'll be applying to graduate school.

A statement of purpose is a 500-word summary of where you've been, where you are, how you got there, and where you're planning to go. It is also a summary of who you are, what you've achieved, why you matter, and how you plan to affect change in the world. I've had to sell myself before in job interviews and on cover letters and scholarship applications. I've never been very good at it. I attribute it to my Lutheran background. Something about confessing every Sunday that I am a poor miserable sinner who deserves only death and punishment makes me doubt that I really have the ability to change anything, much less the world. For years Luther has been telling me that there is no worthiness or merit in me and that any good that comes from me is a sheer miracle of God, a miracle for which I take no credit.

To counter my guilt and shame, I have been reading other people's SoPs, feeding my pride, and convincing myself that "Hey, I could do that." I don't know how "Christian" this is of me, but I've yet to see the fallout. In fact, I think God might be rather proud of me for claiming the gifts that I've  been developing and discovering since I was four years old. He may even be disappointed in me for not being more diligent in pursuing them.

Eight years ago I was a senior in high school. I was a good student, a fair speaker, a decent writer, and a "super Christian." I wasn't more holy, sanctified, or redeemed than anyone else. I wasn't particularly positive, kind, or happy, but I read Christian books, wore Christian shirts, listened to Christian music, and led Christian study groups. I chose a Christian college to which I received a Christian leadership scholarship. During a campus visit, I had met with one of the English faculty. He taught literature courses and we discussed Willa Cather and Nebraska authors and I was utterly enthralled with the thought of reading and studying books for the next four years. But I was a slow reader, with little knowledge of the literary canon. I feared falling behing my peers, and decided instead to enter the Christian education program and pursue a degree in counseling. I learned that counseling required seven years of grad school and switched to youth ministry. I wasn't particularly engaging. I didn't have a passion for kids or spiritual formation or recreational activities. I found it all interesting, but, well, I don't play dodgeball.

Meanwhile, I also entertained this idea of being a writer. I engrossed myself in books and words and  went to poetry readings and plays. I paired youth ministry with a writing major, reasoning that I could write Bible studies or work at Brio magazine (which was discontinued in 2009, but was similar to Susie). I was as if I had to "Christianize" my vocation, as if a sense of vocation (a summons or strong inclination to a particular state or course of action; especially : a divine call) wasn't enough. 

I was in the second half of my junior year before I realized what I had been doing, how I had been trying to prove myself and live up to my own ideas of what it meant to be called by God. Ironically, it was when I left the church that I began to discover my real interests and develop my natural gifts. 

By that time it was too late to switch majors and too soon for me to commit to a graduate program. I hadn't spent enough time pursuing my literary enthusiasm. I tried writing a statement of purpose--describing my writing background, my passions, my inspirations, my plans for the future--but I couldn't, because I didn't have any. I didn't know why I wanted to be a writer or what I wanted to do with a writing degree. I just knew that I wanted it. Essentially, I wanted to get a Master's in English because I'd spent most of my college career pursuing a Bachelor's in "Christianity."

But going to school because you "like to learn" doesn't really cut it with acceptance committees. So I graduated, and left college, and worked odd jobs and started blogging and writing and traveling and writing and then looking for any job that would give me experience as a writer. But the economy tanked and I moved to a new place and the only job I was really qualified for was in youth ministry. So I did that for two years. And here I am, trying to sell myself as a writer once again. But this time it feels different. I haven't read scads of books or acquired remarkable skills, but I have started to pay attention to myself, to the things that excite me and move me and affect me, the things that I've always loved, even when I didn't realize it.

I think of what God would say if he were to read through my statement of purpose, and for the most part I think he would smile (which is something I don't often say about God). I think God would be glad to see me finally doing the things that he made me to do, know that I've gotten the "parent-pleasing" out of my system. He might be disappointed by the little white lies I tell regarding the excellence of the university's faculty and my enthusiasm to work with professors whose bios I found online and whose works I've barely skimmed, but for the most part I think God would be okay.

It is difficult to get someone else to believe in you when you don't really believe in yourself. And it is difficult to believe in yourself when you are constantly being told that you don't measure up. The words I need to hear are not "You need Jesus," but "You are enough. You are gifted and talented and you are free to pursue those desires. You and your talents can meet the world's needs in a way no one else can." It's a bit lofty, I know, but it's a truth I need to claim if I am ever to write with conviction. What good is a statement of purpose if you don't believe it yourself?

Monday, December 10, 2012

Thank you and Goodbye

"You have a restless spirit" he typed.

(I have this addiction to gmail chat that I don't like to admit, but that is true nonetheless)

"Well, I suppose so..." I responded, "BUT..."

There's always a "but" when it comes to claiming my personal propensities, especially the ones that are so subjective. I guess I wasn't really claiming my restless spirit so much as I was defending it, as if I know there is something wrong with being restless, as if I want to be more settled and stable, but I just can't help myself and my perpetual need for change.

"I'd like to think of it more as wanderlust," I continued. "BUT...I suppose you're right."

I am restless. My spirit doesn't just occasionally stir, it shifts uncomfortably and continually, like a thirteen-year-old boy in the middle of an 8th hour English class. Mondays are the worst. I haven't gone to work on a Monday morning since September, maybe August. It's supposed to be my sabbath--the day I don't drive to Liberty or answer my work e-mails or worry about finding chaperones for the next middle school retreat--but it often ends up feeling quite the opposite. Last Monday was fairly productive--I worked on a writing sample and did my dishes and went to the gym and made phone calls. I did some reading. Today I slept in until 8:45, made breakfast, answered some e-mails, and realized yet again how fitful I become without a schedule.

Then I thought about the "Thank you and Goodbye" reception that was held for me at St. Stephen yesterday. It strikes me as somewhat absurd that you wouldn't thank someone for their work until they are about to leave. A "thank you" reception would have been really helpful about 12 months into my job, when I started each morning re-thinking whether or not I should have taken it. "Thank you" would have been a great thing to say when I was in the throws of organizing a service event, planning a confirmation service, or finishing a weekend with a dozen middle school girls. But waiting until I leave to tell that my work is appreciated is almost cruel. I'm sure it was meant to give me a case of the "warm fuzzies," but instead it made me feel empty and hollow. If I had known that I was appreciated, that people noticed and even liked what I was doing, maybe I wouldn't have been so restless, so ready to move on.

Leaving a job, I have decided, is a lot like breaking up with someone. I've never really been on this side of that equation before (i.e., the "dumper"), but I imagine I would probably have similar second thoughts and misgivings about leaving another entity to whom I had previously committed myself. Maybe that's part of the reason I haven't ever ended a relationship. Because I just don't end things. I fight the end, sometimes fiercely. I didn't end my relationship with high school, college, or any of the half a dozen internships that I've had. They were only temporary in the first place.

The only time I've ever really left a place was when I moved from Lincoln, Nebraska, to Kansas City. My waitressing gig at Tandoor wasn't bringing in much money, so that was a pretty painless and mutual decision. But I nearly cried when I left the HyVee bakery. When my manager asked if I wanted to stay in the system I replied, "Well, you never know." They were happy to see me move onto bigger things, but I was still sad to go.

This is the first time a job has ever pursued me. We sort of pursued each other really. It didn't seem like a perfect fit, at least not from my perspective, but they seemed so very eager to make it work. So I thought I'd have a go and see what happened. It was blissful for a while. I was surrounded by preschool students singing Christmas songs and coloring gingerbread men. I got paid to go camping and canoeing and to talk to high school students about the importance of prayer and the beauty of community. It was good stuff. But then, about a year in, I wasn't really sure about it anymore. I wasn't sure if this could be a more permanent thing, if I could see myself as a youth director for the rest of my life. I wasn't being affirmed in my work and didn't feel able to freely use my gifts. It wasn't what I expected from a youth position and it didn't satisfy me the way I thought a career should. I was young. I had other ideas. I had the freedom to pursue them. So I decided I would. I put in my two years and I began dreaming of other things.

I suppose it isn't unlike my current relationship with David. He was the first person to really pursue me, and I suppose I pursued back as well. It didn't seem like a perfect fit, at least not from my perspective, but he seemed so very eager for things to work. So I thought I would have a go and see what would happen. It was blissful at first. We began dating in December, surrounded by Christmas lights and holiday parties, and those sort of "early relationship" conversations. There was someone else paying for me to go to movies and taste delicious things and cook amazing food and meet his wonderful friends. It was good stuff. But then, about a year in, I wasn't really sure about it anymore. I wasn't sure if this could become a more permanent thing, if I could see myself with David for the rest of my life. We talked about it and got passed it and then he moved to California. Eight months later I began applying for graduate schools, mostly in the Bay Area. Up until November I was pretty sure about moving to California next summer. But then I was encouraged to apply elsewhere. I developed other ideas. I have the freedom to pursue them. But I am at a complete loss as to whether or not I should.

I wonder if some relationships (certainly not all of them, but some) would benefit from a "Thank You and Goodbye" ritual, only without the goodbye part. In fact, long before the goodbye happened. If we spent more time appreciating each other and affirming the roles that we play in one another's lives (romantic or otherwise) maybe there wouldn't be as much dissatisfaction and doubt and questioning. Maybe it would hamper some of that longing for something better, the restlessness that I so often seem to experience.

It's unfortunate that the catalyst for gratitude is so often the real or perceived risk of loss. When someone threatens to leave we suddenly realize how valuable they were or are or could be if only they weren't going away. But by that point it is often too late to say "thank you" without also saying "goodbye." And "goodbye" just seems like such a terribly cold thing to follow a heartfelt word of appreciation.

I'm not sure that appreciation would do anything to tame the restlessness of my spirit, but perhaps I would feel a bit more at home, a bit more welcome to rest in its acceptance.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Waiting for Christmas

Christmas seems to creep into grocery stores, shopping malls, TV commercials, and radio stations earlier each year. As soon as Halloween is over (and sometimes even before), the aisles are full of red and green lights, discounted electronics, seasonal treats, and “bargain” prices. Despite this, I refuse to shop for gifts, put up a tree, or listen to holiday music before Thanksgiving. It’s always been that way—dinner before dessert, Thanksgiving before Christmas.

This year I spent Thanksgiving in Las Vegas, where my sister and I celebrated together, along with our respective boyfriends. The four of us spent all morning slicing and chopping and sautéing and baking, and then sat down to a meal of turkey, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie. (There was also baked brie with caramelized onions, marinated olives and sundry other delicious things thanks to so much culinary talent in such a small space). We lit a pumpkin-scented candle and went around the table sharing what we were particularly thankful for in the past year. Our meal was long and meaningful, with an honest dose of struggle shared along with joy. It was Thanksgiving as Thanksgiving ought to be.

And then—at the stroke of midnight—it wasn’t.

The pumpkin candle burned out and mistletoe was put in its place. Christmas music filled the room as we unpacked ornaments, snowflakes, a nativity set, and a tree. The next morning we flipped through ads, drank mint mocha coffee, discussed our wish lists, and talked about when we would be heading home for Christmas, when we would see each other again.

Initially it was all very exciting. I love Christmas. I always have. But somewhere between the shopping, the decorating, the dining, and the details the excitement turned to exhaustion. By the time I flew home Monday morning I was stressing out about what to buy for my niece, wondering when I would have time to put up my own Christmas decorations, and fearing that all the Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals had passed me by before I even knew I wanted them.

I thought back to the Advent services I attended growing up, many of which urged us to let go of the busyness of Christmas preparation in order to hold to a heart that awaited the coming Messiah. I had never understood how Christmas could be stressful. Now I do.

I did some thinking on the plane ride home—about Christmas and Advent and what it really means to celebrate a season. To celebrate is “to show happiness at an occurrence, mark an occasion, or perform a prescribed religious ceremony.” Certainly all of this happens in the weeks leading up to Christmas – we show happiness, play special music, and carry out annual rituals and traditions. Perhaps isn’t a question of if we’re celebrating so much as it is what we’re celebrating.

Maybe one of the reasons that we find it so difficult to quiet our hearts during Advent is that we’re already in the throws of celebrating Christmas. The season of Christmas doesn’t actually begin until December 25th. That’s the start of the season, not the end of it. The 20-odd days of Advent that lead up to Christmas aren’t set aside so that we can cram in as many seasonal parties and activities as possible, but so that we can prepare ourselves for the celebration that is yet to come. Much as Lent is a season during which we recognize our sinfulness and need for salvation, Advent too is a time of recognition, a time during which we recognize our desperate need for Immanuel – God with us – to actually be with us.

It is a season to excitedly anticipate, but it is also a time to quietly contemplate, to recognize our emptiness and to patiently wait to celebrate its completion. We humans aren’t very good at waiting. We don’t like the discomfort of unsatisfied desires – a condition that has given rise to countless new inventions that promise to “save you time” and “get you there faster.” In an instant-gratification society where you can get a meal in minutes and receive a text in mere seconds, the thought of waiting four weeks for Christmas seems interminable. But it is the act of waiting that makes the gratification rewarding. That is, if we’re waiting for the right thing.

In all of our getting ready for Christmas it can be challenging (and uncomfortable) to make space for Advent, to painstakingly carve out some quiet space, sit in it, and wait. But Advent ought to be celebrated as its own distinct season. We might do that by following a daily reading or pulling tabs off a chocolate-filled calendar; by turning off the radio and listening to the still space while driving to work in the morning; by going to a church, sitting in the pew, and reflecting on how we need God – not to help us with our Christmas shopping or to add more hours to our days – but to fill our hearts and redeem our lives. We can wait for the coming of Christ, long for the wholeness we need, and on Christmas we can better celebrate the satisfaction of that desire.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Today, I Write

Just because I am currently applying for an MFA does not mean that this blog is going to become a blog about writing. Nor is it going to become a blog about not writing, though that is more probable based on my slow progress in the application process so far. I blame some of this on the fact that my readers have not returned the writing sample that I sent them to look over, but perhaps that draft was just so terribly boring that they couldn't bring themselves to finish it, on account of falling asleep each time they pulled it out for a perusal. Or perhaps it was just so horrendously flawed that they have not yet finished all of the revision suggestions that it requires.

Today (and by today I mean tonight) I am writing a statement of purpose/vision statement/personal statement/purpose statement. In other words, a 1-2 page summary of who I am, why I write, what makes me unique, my particular talents, my goals, dreams, ambitions, and why in the world anyone ought to let me into their intimate, selective, prestigious writing program. You know, the normal stuff. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to sit on the other side of the table; to sift through carefully crafted summaries of young writers' developments, dreams, and aspirations the way that I currently glance through the 2.5 credit card offers that I receive on a daily basis. Perhaps this is the reason I procrastinate, because I somehow believe that the less time I spend on this statement, the less it will hurt if it is rejected.

I have been told that they things a writer does while she procrastinates writing are the very things she ought to be writing about. In which case I ought to conjure a witty narrative of the difference between the delicate cycle and the casual cycle on my laundry machine and whether or not my super-synthetic hot pants get upset when the realize they are in the same cycle as my Northwestern Lacrosse t-shirt. Or maybe I could write an ode to my dishwasher, the machine that washes, but never dries the slew of tupperware contained inside. I ought to have scads of essays on baking cookies, folding underwear, and checking facebook, which takes up such a large part of my free time I am ashamed to admit it.

Why is it that I cannot focus on this thing that I love? This thing that I say I wish to pursue and on which I am willing to spend thousands of dollars and hours of arduous unpaid labor? I will invest years of my life that I will never get back, and yet I will not forego an episode of Glee in order to read an article on how to "set apart" my application. I tell myself that when the time is right I will do it. I will write. But that day has not come and time is moving on. So today (which is actually tonight) I will write. Imperfectly. Haphazardly. Distractedly. But I will write. And tomorrow I will wake up, procrastinate, complain, blog, and then I will do it again.

Friday, August 24, 2012

A "Real" Writer

Two months ago I announced to my senior pastor (who also happens to be my boss), that I would be leaving my job at the end of the calendar year. A month later I informed the director of the Board of Youth (who happens to be my boss as well), and two weeks ago it was announced to the rest of the congregation. I had been wrestling with the decision for over a year. It seemed that the longer I stayed at St. Stephen the more attached I got to the security and comfort of having a decent job with a flexible schedule, health benefits, and a retirement plan. Youth directors make no large sum of money, but I brought in enough to cover my rent and groceries, to pay off my student loans and make progress toward owning my car. I was getting to know the people in the congregation and to form relationships with the youth, and all of that is fine and good, especially if you enjoy eating cookies, drinking Starbucks, and coming into work at 11:00 am. But when your major job tasks seem more like a nightmare than an adventure and the highlight of your week is the article you write for the church newsletter, it may be time to change professions.So after three years of post-graduate wandering, I've finally decided to apply to grad school, and now that I've made that known, there's no backing out. It's like signing up for a marathon. I can start training on my own with the best of intentions, and if it my knees and I decide we really don't have the time for this, I can always back out and justify that decision to myself. But once other people find out that I've paid $50 to put my body through hell I really have to show up and run those 26.4 miles, or at least give it my best shot.The past few weeks I've been reading through MFA (Master of Fine Arts) websites, stalking various writing instructors, and attempting to come up with the necessary application materials (a statement of purpose (SOP), letters of rec, and the all-important writing sample). When I read through the accomplishments, honors, and awards of program directors and participants it makes me want to lower my ears, turn my head, and walk away with my tail between my legs. And the application questions serve only to remind me of my insufficiencies: Who are the major literary influences in your life and work? In which journals and magazines have you been published? What honors, grants, or award have you received?You know, if I was a published, networked, successful writer I wouldn't be applying to MFA programs. Who are my literary influences? Oh you, know C. S. Lewis, Jane Austen, Lauren Winner and whoever else I've come across in the past few years. Pretty much everyone inspires me, or else no ond does I think a truer statement would be that everyone I read intimidates me. What am I reading? Well, I'm currently in the middle of a Christian book on vocation and am still stuck somewhere in the third chapter of Dorian Gray. Seeing as I've never read a book by Oscar Wilde I thought it was high time. It's just too bad that book is in California right now. The last book that I finished? What was the last book I finished? The Hunger Games? Now that's just sad. What honors or awards have I received? I think I was the most improved player on my middle school volleyball team, and I had a poem included in the Anthology of Poetry by Young Americans when I was in sixth grade.The honest truth makes me wonder if I'm actually a "real" writer or if I've just been posing as one ever since I graduated from college. I don't have a novel that I've been working on for the past three years or a laundry list of short stories that I'm submitting to Ploughshares, The Atlantic, or The Paris Review. I didn't even know what those were before I started this application process. I'm not a published professional and I haven't appeared in any articles on up and coming writers. Isn't there a school out there looking for someone like me? A hard-working twenty-something who loves words, lives for experiences, and writes to inspire, amuse, and delight? Doesn't anyone want to take a chance on someone who doesn't have loads of experience sending query letters and consorting with publishers?I've read articles and interviews from published authors who didn't begin writing until late in life and who now give readings and appear at book signings. I am inspired by their success and encouraged to pursue my own dreams and ambitions, but in the back of my mind I wonder if they would have gotten into any of the MFA programs I'm applying for. I'm certainly beginning to wonder if I will.Jane Anne Staw (an instructor at one of the programs I'm considering) has penned, “If you sit down each day and write, no matter how little, you are a real writer.” Those words not only incline me to move her program to the top of my grad school list, but also reassure me of my value and the value of my work, regardless of our publication status. I may not be seasoned or popular, but I am still a writer, and I will continue to be one even if I don't qualify for one of the eight spots open for Creative Non-Fiction. Come tomorrow I may feel differently, but for today it is enough.  

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Dream a Little Dream

As a youth ministry coordinator (this is my new title), I often end up leading some level of Bible class on Sunday morning. Last Sunday it was senior high. At the start of class we had a "guest adult" come in and tell the kids a bit about her background, family, interests, etc. It's a part of an initiative that the Board of Youth is taking to foster more interaction between the adults and students in the congregation. So far it's gone pretty well, but that's beside the point. At the end of her introduction, Stacey asked each of the students to answer the question, "What dream(s) do you have?" For one it was going to college and majoring in something business-related. Another just wanted to finish high school. A third hoped to find a way to travel for a large part of her life. 
When the girl to my left finished sharing her dream I allowed for a brief pause before the question came to me. Just as I was about to answer, Stacey moved onto the student on my right, "And what about you, Addy? What kind of dream do you have?" she asked. 
I was surprised and a little disheartened that I had been passed over. "What about me?" I said with mock indignation. "Don't I get to have a dream?" Stacey quickly apologized. "Oh, I didn't mean to skip you. I just thought, well, that you're an adult."
"Well, sometimes I think so too," I retorted, "but does that mean I don't get to have a dream?"
I went on to briefly share that I thought someday I would like to publish a book, that being a published writer was something I had dreamed of since I was maybe ten years old. 

When I was in college (and even when I was in high school) I was simultaneously inspired and frustrated by the number of times I was asked, "So, what do you want to do after you graduate?" Or worse "What do you want to do with your life?" I should have taken it as an opportunity to dream, but usually I ended up stressed out over the fact that I didn't really have a satisfactory answer and therefore could not meet the inquirer's expectation, and I hate when I can't meet expectations. 

I finished undergrad in May of 2009 and didn't really stop hearing that question until I moved to Kansas City and started working at St. Stephen 18 months later. An interesting thing happens once you settle into life in "the real world." People stop asking you what you want to do or who you want to be. Sometimes because they don't care, but often because they assume that you're already doing it. If I were to take a poll, I would wager that 75% of the members at St. Stephen believe that I like being a youth director, that I've always wanted to be a youth director, and that I will continue to be a youth director for many years to come. About 20% of the members still don't know who I am, and then another 5% know the truth. That I actually fell into this job by happen chance. That I've been trying to get myself overseas since January of 2010, and I don't really know what my future holds.

Why is it that once we leave high school or college and settle into a job or career that so many of us we stop encouraging one another to dream? Isn't that rather detrimental to the creativity, happiness, and vitality of our society? Sometimes our dreams change - perhaps we exchange the dream of being a wildlife photographer in order to birth children or invest ourselves in a non-profit or a small business. But other times we just give up. 

Maybe dreaming is too hard, or maybe it's too risky. Dreaming requires hope and hope is a fragile thing. Fragile things break, and we fear that we will break along with them. What if...? we ask. What if the dream doesn't happen? What if it fails? What if I put my heart and soul and spirit into something that never comes to fruition? What if, indeed.

Later that day I returned to Stacey's question and reflected on my answer. If I really wanted to publish a book why wasn't I doing anything about it? What did I expect? That the editor of a well-known literary magazine would check out one of my better blogposts and send me an e-mail begging for a submission? Did I think that one day I would just decide to stop spending my free time playing Words With Friends and checking Facebook in order to put ideas down on paper? Was this really something that I dreamed? Or was it an easy out? A dream so far off and distant that it didn't actually require my present hope?

I decided that some of my inaction had been out of ignorance, some of it out of apathy, and the rest of it out of fear. Fear that pursuing a writing career would mean facing very real and possible failure. Then I thought about the students that I work with. The ones who dream of being nurse anesthetists and travel writers and professional baseball players and Kindergarten teachers. How could I encourage them to pursue their dreams, when I've spent the past two years denying my own?

I decided that maybe it was time to make some changes. To pursue something that I was afraid might never come to fruition. To hope for something so big that it could fail, and it probably will the first and second and third time that I try. But if I never try, how will I know?

It is good to have dreams, but it isn't enough just to have them if they don't make a difference, if you never make any action toward realizing them. So today, I am taking small steps, beginning with the completion of this blogpost, which I started 3 weeks ago. As soon as I hit the "Publish" button I will go back to a piece of writing that I've been putting off for most of the day. It isn't very ambitious, but we all need to start somewhere.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Sitting Ovation

I was raised in a house where you finished your homework before playing outside, picked up your room before watching TV, made your bed before eating breakfast, and cleaned your plate before getting dessert. Work, then play. Chores and then fun. Now that I am an adult (or pretending to be one at any rate) I find there is always work to be done and this confuses my work/play understanding something terrible.

How can I take a nap when there are dust bunnies under my bed? How can I enjoy after-dinner conversation when there are dirty dishes in the sink? How can I spend time blogging when there are e-mails to send and programs to plan? You would think that such a mindset makes me uber-productive, but it really just makes me resentful of people who go for walks and read for pleasure and watch movies on weeknights. And then there is the card that trumps all forms of play - people who sit. Not sit while talking to someone else. Not sit and listen to an iPod or sit and surf the Internet. Not sit and read a book, pen a letter, or write in a journal. Just sit. For hours.

At one point I developed the notion that people who sat were either old, tired, or both. Children did not sit. Children played. Parents did not sit. Parents picked up after and chased down children who play. Adults did not sit. Adults worked. They were productive. They did things. They moved. And if they did not do things, if they did work, or run, or build, or clean, then they were lazy. This mindset (much like the one that believed unemployment was the result of a poor work ethic) stuck with me for a long time. Too long. So long, in fact, that I now find myself rather incapable of sitting for more than five minutes without getting anxious. I have to move, or eat, or read, or clean, or at least get my hands on a piece of paper and a pen so that I can write down what I'm thinking, lest I be left along with my thoughts. And this, I believe, is not a good thing.

At some point in my Christian education I think I learned too much about idleness being the devil's workshop and not enough about the holy rest of Sabbath. When I read in Exodus 34:21 "Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest," it sort of upsets me. Even during the plowing season? Are you crazy? Do you expect the fields to take care of themselves? This is my instinctual response. If the fields were done, perhaps rest would be deserved, but in the middle of the season? I think not. I grew up with what I thought was a pretty solid Christian education. I learned the commandments. I knew that Sunday was the Sabbath. But what that really meant to me was that you shouldn't play baseball or go to soccer games or schedule yourself to work on Sunday morning because that was sin. Sunday was the day you went to church. And then after you went to church you were free to garden and do homework and send e-mails and play sports. To this extent even my Sabbath-keeping became a form of work for me.

My freshman year of college I took a class called "Introduction to Christian Ministry" or something of that nature. And in that class I read a book called "The God-bearing Life" by Kenda Creasy Dean. I found Dean's concept of Sabbath-keeping to be revolutionary. Sabbath, she points out, is made for rest, for play, for regeneration. "It dislodges [us] from the relentless onward march of linear (chronos) time and attunes us to God's unhurried time instead (chairos)." My professor put it this way, "Sabbath is a humbling recognition that the world will continue to go on without you." I like to be needed and necessary. Though it ultimately stresses me out, I like to think that without me things won't get done, or won't get done "correctly." It makes me feel important. It gives me value. But our value does not lie in how much we do or how quickly we get it done. Our value lies in who we are.

Shortly after I moved to Derby to intern at the International Community Church (ICC) I went camping with a church community in southern England. During the trip someone asked me what I would be doing during my time at ICC. I answered, "I don't really know. I'm not entirely sure why I'm here, but I really want to contribute something. To do something." Her response took me by surprise. "Maybe," she said, "the reason that you're here isn't to do anything. Maybe you're here just to be." That thought stuck with me during my next four months in the UK. It's something I still haven't learned - how to be still.

When I look through the Bible I see stories of action - of fighting battles, and marching around walls, and traveling to far-off countries. But there are also so so many stories of sitting - in the city square (Judges 19), under a bush (1 Kings 19), at the gates of the temple (Psalms), under trees (Judges 6), and in the presence of God (1 Samuel 17). And when you get to the prophets - Ezra, Nehemiah, Job, Ezekiel - they sit for days and weeks and months, seeking the ear and the heart of the Lord.

And so I have begun to sit. Each morning I take my breakfast tray outside, sit on the front porch and try to be still, which is no small task for me. I shovel in my cereal, gulp down my tea, and get strong urges to check my phone and send e-mail reminders. I have since developed a strong respect for the sitters of the world - the people who are able to rest in the solitary presence of God. It isn't easy, and often it doesn't feel very rewarding for me. But it's in the little changes and sacred spaces that I believe God begins to enter our lives. If I make space He is sure to find it and fill it. And that is enough for me to keep trying.

Stuck in a Route

I started this entry back in April - early April - so nearly two months ago. It was close to publishing when I lost half of my changes and at the time I didn't have the heart to re-create my attempts at witty narration. But yesterday I skimmed the entry in which I committed to regularly updating my blog (which I have done three times in as many months) and now I feel guilty. So without further explanation...

Early April 2012

They say that variety is the spice of life. Changing things up keeps you from getting bored, lazy, apathetic. For the most part agree with that. I enjoy variation in the weather and my clothing, the type of tea I drink in the afternoon and the flavor of jelly I spread on my toast. But there's also something very good about things that are consistent, familiar, routine. (I may like to change up the kind of sandwich I have for lunch, but don't mess with my Kashi Go Lean and sliced banana breakfast - you get the idea).

I sometimes struggle to know which parts of my life can (or should) be routine, and when I need to add a little variety. The other day I was riding a stationary bike at the gym and reading an issue of Women's Day (which was the only magazine that was left, really,) when I came across an article by the well-renowned Dr. Oz. I'm not actually familiar with Dr. Oz and don't recall most of what he had to say, but I do recall that the article mentioned something about the benefit of "automizing" as many choices in your life as possible. Something about giving your brain a break from making decisions that don't really matter. Are you happy eating the same thing for breakfast every morning? (Well, yes, Dr. Oz, as a matter of fact I am). Then do so. Do you continue to benefit from your 7:30 Pilates class and 8:45 shower? Then you should stick with them.

That got me thinking back to the days when I used to have a running routine. Due to knee problems and a fluke foot injury I haven't been padding the pavement since November, and it's been a sad five months indoors. The past week or two I've begun venturing out again. Just short distances around the neighborhood, but it's an improvement over Dr. Oz and the stationary bike at the gym. This morning I thought I would push myself and head back toward the river. (Bodies of water continue to be my favorite destinations for runs, hikes, walks, and wanderings). I was pretty confident in my ability to get there and back without pulling or straining something. A "river run" for me averages anywhere from 8-14 miles round trip. Up to this point I hadn't done more than 6, but I was eager to return to my route.

The first two miles from KCK to the Lewis and Clark Viaduct went fairly well. I'm used to navigating the alleyways and side-stepping the curb-sitters of Minnesota Avenue. I crossed the Kansas (or Kaw) River on the elevated runway that hangs from below Interstate 70 (see photo). It might be my favorite part of the run, especially when there are trains crossing on the bridge just north of the one I scurry across. Over the water, under the interstate and beside the trains, but completely isolated from traffic on the Riverfront Bike trail.

I first ran this trail in the fall of 2010, not long after I moved from the suburbs and strip malls of Johnson County to the Little Mexico of Kansas City, Kansas. I googled "bike trails" and found the map pictured above. Portions of the trail were "unfunded" or "under construction," but even when points of the trail came to a halt (going straight from a clean square of pavement to a pile of dirt), I still managed to find my way to downtown Kansas City, Missouri (skylines are helpful that way).

I continued down the two miles of the Viaduct, taking in the familiarity of my old stomping grounds. I flashed back to memories of the countless podcasts of "This American Life" that I had listened to while covering this same stretch. (The weekend that Ira Glass featured the games sector of World's of Fun was a personal favorite.) As I did I kept waiting for the paved portion of the bike path to end. It should have happened about half way to Broadway Bridge, but it didn't. It just kept stretching on and on. "This," I told myself, "must be where that check I wrote to the Kansas Department of Revenue went." I made a mental note to take advantage of public services more often.

I ran the length of the trail, hopped on Woodswether Road, and made my way up the winding incline of the Broadway Bridge, coming out on 3rd Street, just a few blocks from the River Market - another personal favorite when it comes to running destinations. As I edged toward Main Street I thought of the numerous times that I've run this stretch of ground in the past 18 months. There's something almost sacred about revisiting a stretch of pavement. I thought of the summer that I moved to Kansas City, of the excitement and disappointment and frustration that I felt my first few months in the area. I thought of the months that I spent learning my new neighborhood by foot when I wasn't scouring the internet for job opportunities. And then training for the KC half-marathon while working as a document specialist at an animal testing facility and a part-time server in Westport. I recalled agonizing over my decision to leave that job and have a go at being a youth director at a small church in Liberty, Missouri.

I reached the edge of the Town of Kansas Bridge (which begins at 3rd and Main and juts out over the Missouri River) and I paused. Usually I would continue down two flights of stairs and onto the trail that passes the Town of Kansas wharf and leads to the two-mile stretch of the Berkeley Riverfront Park esplanade. But for now, just reaching the river was enough. I looked out across the water below and watched the murky current steadily flow. How many times had I come to this spot and spilled out the thoughts that were sloshing in my mind? Questions about my job, my purpose, my relationships, my life. Questions that the river could not answer, but also questions that it did not judge.

I continued watching the water flow by, and felt that the river and I had something in common. Always moving, always changing, filled with a life-giving flow of energy, and yet still the same from week to week and month to month and year to year. Rivers can change their course over time, but the Missouri River will remain the Missouri regardless of how high the water level is or whether or not one of its tributaries dries up. I thought of how I had changed in the past year, even the past six months. Happily settled in Kansas City, moving forward with a job that has wound its way into my heart much like the boyfriend who recently moved to San Francisco. I am no longer worried about being alone, and yet still very much afraid of missing out on what I was made to do (whatever that may be). Some of my circumstances have changed. My thoughts have changed. My feelings have changed. But I am still me. Full of emotion, full of feeling, full of uncertainty - all of which course through my being like the waters of the river.

I stood a moment longer before trudging back up the bridge and heading for home. I still had four miles of ground to cover and my legs were growing tired, though my heart felt somewhat lighter. I embraced the familiarity of the situation. Going home, to the place I have called home for 18 months now. The place that will be home for a time longer. Until change comes again. Rerouting my course, but not changing me. 

Friday, March 30, 2012

Of music and words

I don't how it always happens, but no matter where I am or what my title, I always end up spending too much time and energy working. I take extra shifts, work extra hours, schedule more meetings, send too many e-mails. Even when I hate my job I overwork myself.

Monday was supposed to be a day off for me. I didn't drive into Liberty or schedule any meetings, but that didn't stop me from spending 2.5 hours on my laptop and phone following up with camp counselors and reminding people of upcoming events. By 2 pm I realized what I was doing and knew I needed to get myself out of the house. I packed my journal and a book on writing and headed to Loose Park for the rest of the afternoon. I made a loop around the rose garden and set off to find a bench when I heard what sounded like the faint sound of a violin. Walls and hedges kept me from a direct route to my destination, but I followed my ears and eventually ended up in the center of the garden.

On a weathered gray bench a small man in black glasses sat playing the violin. He had nothing with him - no sheet music, messenger bag, or water bottle - just the black cloth case that sat closed beneath the bench. I wandered about the inner circle of the garden, avoiding the shirtless man with the long blond hair, beach towel, and radio; searching for a sunless spot to open my book on writing. I picked a patch of shade just a few feet from the musician, and with my head on my tote bag I lied down to listen. Sheltered from the sun, I felt the music wash over. Time passed and the tall green crab grass began itching my legs, urging me to get up. Tiredness won out, and I stayed a while longer, wrapped in my sundress, eyes clamped shut.

An hour later I moved to a bench and opened the book I'd been meaning to read. The gift of the music maker unlocked my desire to write, and so I did, for pages and pages.

"In front of a dead fountain still cloaked in its winter protection
he pours forth music, song after song.
Not for profit or practice, but the sheer pleasure of playing -
of producing a song and sending it out.
A slight cool breeze brought it to me, waking my senses from deep hibernation.
His melody mingles with that of the birds, as he joins in their sweet ceaseless song.
He brings us together - the runners, dog-walkers, soccer moms, and baby-sitters;
The students, senior citizens, and fortunate few who can lounge in a park on a Monday afternoon.
Song after song is stored in his head, danced out out by his fingers, bow upon strings.
He plays away the bright hot sun, and into the cool of late afternoon.
I lie on my back waiting for sleep, wondering what summer dreams may come."

"I, with all of my words, lack the courage to spill them out and offer and them freely as the song of this man. I, the educated writer with my books and tools and methods and thoughts cannot put pen to paper the way he puts bow to string. I am afraid of the noise I will make, or worse yet, that my words make no noise at all. That I have nothing to offer, no song to play. The musician has courage and I hesitation. If I get up the nerve, write a piece, scrawl a poem, will the dog-walkers, soccer moms, and students stop for me? The senior citizens, nannies, lovers, and friends? Will they take in my song? Breathe in my words? Or do I play only for myself?"

A place to write - and vent

I am remiss to confess that I have neglected, abandoned, and forgotten this blog like one-too-many New Year's resolutions. In fact, I probably had a New Year's resolution to blog more often. Then again, I also thought I'd give up alcohol at the beginning of the year. Based on the fact that my sister and I shared a bottle of wine on January 3rd, the future of this blog looked grim from the start. But now I return, like a dog to its vomit (2nd Peter 2:22) or a squirrel to a forgotten stash of acorns, hoping to reactivate a blog that has for so long laid dormant.

This is my excuse:

Not long after starting work at St. Stephen Lutheran Church, I was introduced to The Voice, a weekly newsletter in which I was allowed to make announcements, solicit volunteers, advertise events, and (most importantly) write articles. The promise of a regular (though small and somewhat eccentric) weekly audience was enticing and empowering. In the 72 weeks that I have worked at St. Stephen I have probably written over 60 articles on topics ranging from the preschool Christmas program to my relationship with the late Cody Kuehn (our beloved family shelty) to my most recent series on the ground-breaking and new sanctuary. Most of these articles were written in two hours on a Tuesday afternoon or Wednesday morning (noon on Wednesday is the weekly deadline), and for some reason I thought that was adequate for my weekly writing praxis. Please accept my apologies for such a terrible judgement call. 

In the beginning I posted sundry Voice articles to this blog, which I told myself was beneficial and resourceful, but was actually just a lazy cop out for writing. All of that is about to change, however. And under circumstances that are just a little less than ideal. 

Let me explain:

Prior to about a week ago I was given free reign to choose the themes and topics of my weekly Voice articles. On weeks when youth ministry lacked its usual luster, my Voice articles became the one part of my job I knew I did well (or thought I did well at any rate). By the estimations of most of the members of the small Lutheran congregation, I'm a pretty good writer, and at times that has been the most validating part of my weekly work. I didn't often plan on my topics ahead of time. I just looked for themes, ideas, or things that struck me as interesting, moving, or peculiar. I began to consider my Voice articles as sort of like blog posts in print. That was a mistake. 

Following an annual review at which the director of the youth board tersely and unexpectedly shared with me some of the many areas in which I needed to improve, I was looking for a way to establish better rapport with the congregation. I reflected on the fact that not many of them knew me very well and had little idea of how I ended up in the youth position at St. Stephen. That tale, as you know if you have read this blog in the past, is no short story. But I decided to share it through a series of articles, sandwiched between one on the power of claiming our own stories and another on the importance of sharing them. 

I was more satisfied with these articles than most, and tickled by the number of people who e-mailed, facebooked, or approached me to say how much they had enjoyed reading them. Seldom have I been more pleased with a response to my writing. And seldom have I been more disappointed or hurt than when I received an e-mail from the youth board director asking why I felt it was necessary to spend three weeks focusing on myself and filling my pages with stories that were "Amanda-centered" rather than "Christ-centered." I sort of wanted to cry, but mostly I was just angry. I probably should have waited to e-mail her back and spared myself from needing to make yet another apology. 

Future Voice articles will not be published without the approval of the youth board director, which means that I need to find another place where I can freely share my thoughts and speak what I believe to be truth as I come realize it. More than any sense of duty or obligation to my readers, that is the reason why I am returning to this blog. That, and the fact that I just wrote a really bitter poem about censorship that I'm compelled to send into cyberspace. 

I might wait until I've left my job before making such a move. In the meantime, look for updates to come.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Controlled by an 8-year-old

Every once in a while (and by that I mean an embarrassingly high number of times that I don't care to admit) I step back from the day-to-day tasks of preparing food, driving to work, grocery shopping, paying bills, attending to families, and doing my laundry; and I reflect on what I'm doing with my life. This activity is usually sobering, often terrifying, occasionally satisfying, and potentially paralyzing. It isn't that my life is unhappy, difficult, or empty. I have a job that I generally enjoy. I'm perfectly capable of paying my bills and living within my means. I like the city, area, and home in which I live. I have plenty of space and easy roommates. I have kind friends and a community who care for me. My occupation and location allow me to get in my car and regularly visit my parents, my sister, and sundry college friends. I'm in a relationship with someone who adores me even when I'm difficult (and the more I think on that the more impressive it is). 

My problem isn't that I don't want what I have. My problem is that I want more. 

It isn't that I want more stuff. (That's the last thing I need right now, especially after Christmas). At times, though, I want more life. I want more out of life. I want to go back to school. I want to get a Masters and maybe a Ph.D. I want to travel through Europe. I want to fluently speak another language. I want to live abroad. I want to have an adventure. I want to teach. I want to publish a book. I want to do something completely unexpected. And I want to do all of it now. 

Or maybe I don't. Maybe I don't really want to realize every dream I've ever had before I turn 28. And yet I feel a compulsion to do so. I feel that at 25-years-old I should have more to show for my life than a BA, a part-time job, a used car, and my meager bank account. 

I used to blame this compulsion on the media, the world, and society in general.* All of those "other people," those voices that are continually telling me I need to be more beautiful, successful, healthy, wealthy, creative, knowledgable, networked, and industrious. Those voices and the messages they send regarding what we should and shouldn't do or be or want to be are loud and irritating and sometimes condemning. But the voices I find influence me most are my own.

Somewhere inside my 25-year-old self are all of the Amandas that have passed, and whether or not I realize it, each of them also has something to say about what I'm doing with my life. 9-year-old Amanda is confused that she is not sharing an apartment with her neighborhood friend, Sarah. 10-year-old Amanda is shocked that she isn't working at Hallmark. 12-year-old Amanda wonders why she has not yet published a book. 13-year-old Amanda is wondering why she isn't married to someone with blue eyes and wavy brown hair. 16-year-old Amanda is still looking for a perfect mate. 18-year-old Amanda wants to be teaching college courses. 20-year-old Amanda is wondering why she isn't an editor living in a big city like Chicago or New York.  21-year-old Amanda is disappointed that she isn't in grad school and 23-year-old Amanda is frustrated to know that two years later she still isn't living overseas. Only 17-year-old Amanda is satisfied to hear that she is a youth director, but even she is skeptical of why she is in ministry alone.

It may seem foolish that I am currently trying to live up to the expectations of an 8-year-old girl who has little idea of what it takes to be an independent person and to eek out a living, and yet I fear disappointing her just as much as I fear disappointing all of the Amandas that follow her. I am the one who has set the expectations for what I should be doing and when I should be doing it. There is no one to refute me and so I carry on, following the path that I am on all the while wondering if I should have taken the other fork in the road and regretting it with each passing step. I become so worried about what I'm not becoming, that it is difficult for me to see and enjoy what I am. 

I have no immediate solution for this problem, and since it is my problem I don't really feel compelled to attempt to offer one for anyone who may stumble upon this post - a post that is not really what I intended it to be when I started to blog - which is an activity that 24- and 25-year-old Amanda are super sad she hasn't been doing.

*I've decided that this is my equivalent of "the devil, the world, and my sinful nature," but maybe I've been spending too much time in the catechism.