Time to fly

Last Wednesday, I bid farewell to a job I loved. It was my dream job, the job that combined my passion for words with my deepest held beliefs, a job that rattled and refined that faith, a job where I encountered the Divine in the voices of others. It was more than a job, it was a call.

This call sent me to Budapest, Boston, Johannesburg, Houston. I met Lutheran parishioners, pastors and neighbors on the margins — some who fled their homes to find haven in the U.S., some still searching for a home in this country. I heard hymns of praise and songs of lament. I witnessed ministries that fed bellies and souls. With my trusty laptop and reporter’s notebook, I captured it all, being careful to record the truth, no matter how inconvenient. When I sat down to craft a story, each line felt like a prayer. The work tethered me to hope.

Most days, I worked from the office. Pre-pandemic, I had a cube with a view of the courtyard, my space nestled next to five of my favorite coworkers. I met dear friends here — kind, talented people who laughed and cried and did excellent work alongside me.

This is also the place I worked when I became a mother.

All in all, I spent nine years stewarding sacred stories for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — years of listening and telling, growing and becoming.

There are occasions in life when you look around and realize that the tidy nest you built no longer fits, and you’ll need to leave in order to fly. After much prayer and discernment, I resigned to pursue my vocations as a mother and a writer.

There will be time to reflect more, to announce what’s coming next.

For now, I’ll close with this: It was an honor and a privilege to play a role in making known the immeasurable love of God.

36 truths for my 36th year

Today is my 36th birthday. 

It’s also the fifth birthday of this humble little blog. This is the place where I share truths that cannot remain contained within my notebooks but don’t fit another publication. My blog is a memory book, an escape, a means of connection, my attempt to document beauty. To borrow a friend’s metaphor, this is also where I “practice my scales” and play around with the craft of writing.

Another writer I admire tells the story of a Facebook post she wrote titled “25 Things About Me” and how doing so helped her grow. I thought it might be fun to try something similar here, but instead of starting from scratch, I’ve culled 36 truths from some favorite reflections I’ve written.

Piecing this list together helped me appreciate how much I’ve matured in my understanding of motherhood, faith, relationships and more. I hope you find some nuggets of wisdom here to take with you on *your* journey (if something really resonates, find the full piece to which it belongs by clicking on the number above). Cheers to chapter 36 of a crazy, beautiful, grace-filled life!

(1)

The truth is, I’ve always ached to love and be loved, but I wrestle with loving myself. Hearing my own melody helped me see my innate holiness — made in God’s image, blessed and broken, sinner and saint.

(2

If my life could be divided into a “before” and “after,” motherhood would be the defining moment. Motherhood has broken, healed and shaped me into the person I am today, and it is often the subject of the stories I share here, along with my faith. Becoming a mother has both pushed me to wrestle with my faith and given me a lens for noticing the sacredness in the mundane.

(3)

This is what I need to pay attention to: my shining son, the leaves, his laughter, the gift of this day. Surely the Spirit is here. 

(4

[My son] is scaling a sand dune,
chasing the tide,
pointing me to beauty.
He is the bubble bath, the fuzzy robe,
the last kiss before lights out.
He is not the seeker nor the one who hides but
the feeling of being found.

(5)

I loved being a mother, but it was also the hardest thing I’d ever done. I wondered if I’d ever look or feel like my old self again. I wondered why all the parenting books I read and mommy bloggers I followed failed to fully communicate this tension. My feelings on motherhood were, surprisingly, mixed.

(6)

On the page I belong to no one but myself. There’s no crying to comfort, no milk to fetch, no bottoms to wipe. No texts to return, emails to answer, calls to make. Here I am nothing and I am everything. Line by line, I uncover my identities — wife, mother, sister, daughter, employee, neighbor, friend, believer.

(7)

Occasionally I wake up angry at God. Most days I don’t. Lately I’ve been finding rest in this passage: “So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16). I want to teach this to my son over and over: the love we share is a gift from God. And God is Love.

(8)

How often have I denied the gifts of love and rest, thinking I must work to be deemed worthy? It takes several hundred meters, but swimming finally becomes a moving meditation. I come to the end of my thoughts and release my worries. I trust in my body, my breath, these waters, this moment.

(9)

Sometimes it takes traveling halfway across the country to a remote retreat center to stare at a 260-year-old stump to see the truth you hadn’t noticed — that you’d been running away from your fear and pain rather than accepting it. 

(10)

Everyone I meet [here] is searching for something. Some are carrying heartaches far heavier than mine. Others are engaged in vocational discernment. One doctor struggles to see his worth in retirement. A widow bravely embarks on a new chapter of life without her husband. I meet a harpist who recently lost her father, and I hold space for her grief while sharing my fears about my father. That evening her performance of “Ave Maria” makes me weep. She later tells me the harp is “heart music.”

(11)

Something miraculous and mysterious happens when we voice our stories — we give others permission to claim theirs too.

(12)

I wonder how society would change if we looked beyond our own families and started seeing everyone in our world as beloved children. What tender care we could give each other. Just imagine.

(13)

I watch you squint at the draft and think how hard it must be to love a writer. You’ve been loving me like this — seeing me as I want to be seen, cheering me on — since we met in college. I’ve watched with awe as you achieved your goals, never quitting. In 15 years, we’ve seen each other through illness, health, hardship and ease. Isn’t that love, a kind of seeing?

(14)

In a year that often feels like a giant kitchen debacle, in a year that’s separated us from our loved ones or deepened divides between those with whom we disagree, in a year that’s defied all plans and expectations, how do we taste and see goodness in all circumstances? We slow down. We look. We grow eyes for gratitude. We savor the gifts in our midst.

(15)

…we could linger in bed on a Tuesday morning and discuss our dreams. Stay in our pajamas. Savor juicy blueberry pancakes and the view outside our bay window. Beyond the glass is a tree I never used to notice — red pinpricks fleck its branches in early spring before becoming pale green buds that unfurl into cream-colored blossoms. … I witnessed it all. Miracle.

(16)

I didn’t want to go in, but in that moment I knew I could either be the mom who played in the mud or killed the fun. I had only 10 minutes left for this walk and zero supplies for clean up. This would surely dirty my car, delay our daily agenda and screw up Jack’s nap schedule. Plus I was wearing white-soled shoes. No matter what, this was going to be a mess.

“Mommy! Mommy!” my son called again, grinning. Gus let out a little bark.

This time, I didn’t hesitate. I stepped out into the mud to play.

(17)

Sheltering my child and dwelling in his love is the most important work I’ve been called to do.

(18)

I want him to know that there’s a time to be strong and a time to be still, and that grief can find you no matter how hard you attempt to outswim it. Grief is not an enemy to ignore but a friend leading me out of darkness, reminding me that my love was real, my love persists and my baby’s short life mattered. 

(19)

Life is brief and storms are to be expected.

It’s also undeniably dazzling, this joyous race toward home.

(21)

While shedding my coat in preparation for shoveling out the alley, I thought to myself perhaps there’s a metaphor here — something about our lives’ unseen work being uncomfortable but important? Yes, that’s it, I resolved, clearing the way, pressing onward in the winter sun, watching our kids slide and giggle and scale the growing mounds of snow. I am developing grit here, I thought. This unseen, back-breaking work matters. 

(22)

Half of my life I spent running
trying to make myself small.
These days I stand tall
and sing:
this is how I was created —
with whole symphonies inside
praising.

(23)

A well-written kiss is, as Stephen King puts it, “telepathy, of course.” I keep trying to capture life with language the way great authors have for me, for all of us. I still have much to learn, but I continue to practice because writing is the best means of expressing love I know — other than kissing. Good stories sweep us off our feet, make us weak in the knees and kiss our souls with their deep understanding of our secret aches and glories. I want to bless you with that kind of knowing.

(24)

She needs to remember what it means to claim the role of heroine. She’s learning sometimes the bravest thing she can do is ask for help, or be still and sit with her emotions. Other times it means choosing the bigger life or speaking up for her values.

(25)

While I’m still learning to live with my hunger, of this, I’m certain: it no longer scares me. 

(26)

I wanted to tell her I liked her damaged wing. I wanted to whisper, “There’s beauty in your brokenness, butterfly. You’ll soar again.” I wanted to say all this, then I realized she already knows. She’s been through metamorphosis before. 

(27)

She can twirl too, this soft, strong, aging body of mine. She still runs on occasion — mostly after her son. She is still afraid of everything and nothing. She isn’t done changing. Not even close. I wonder, what will she do next?

(28)

I used to think there wasn’t a place for the carefree girl in motherhood. Now I’m starting to believe I was wrong. Who better to teach my son what it feels like to run barefoot in the grass on a summer day? Who better to take him to water parks and on rollercoasters and white water rafting? Who better to show him there’s no shame in pursuing audacious dreams and simple delights? Who better to show him there’s strength in independence?

(29)

What we model, our children inherit. Children soak up the words we speak and the actions we take and reflect them back to us like a mirror.

(30)

On “grumpy gray” days, I remind my son that light is still present, it’s just hidden behind the clouds. (I need this reminder, too.) Even at night, stars sparkle in the velvet sky and the moon reflects the light of our closest star. “You can find the light of God everywhere,” I say to him, “if you look closely.”

(31)

Perhaps God also speaks to us in our darkest moments. In the silence. In the doubt.

(32)

God formed Adam out of dust. Bodies laid to rest turn into dust when they decompose in the earth. Dust, invisible, yet everywhere, clings to the ceiling fan, the baseboards, the window panes. It twists in the wind, tumbles across the streets. Ice latches onto dust to create something entirely new — sparkling snowflakes, each a tiny marvel, raining from the heavens like manna. Jesus rose from the dust so that we might leave our dusty bodies behind and join him in heaven. What does our Creator hope for us at Lent? I think that we might pause and confront our dustiness, and live differently because of it.

(33)

I know it’s easy to cast myself in the role of hero, rather than admit my faults. I know the story we read is missing repentance and reconciliation, true justice and mercy, grace and healing. It’s missing a hero who modeled the way of love. What will it take for us to write a new story? What will it take for us to create a just society?

(34)

You were created with gifts, passions and a unique capacity for serving others. Maybe you had a mentor like Mrs. Jackson who noticed your talents and encouraged you to shine. Perhaps you have a dream hidden away beneath the surface. Only you know what kindles joy inside, what it takes to say “yes” to your dreams, a call that I believe comes from the Holy Spirit.

(35)

She wasn’t sure how high she’d go
or if she’d ever reach the summit.
What mattered more was
the view
the climb
& all it’s teaching her.

(36)

…maybe light wasn’t something she needed to catch. Maybe it was inside her all along. 

The gifts of waiting (newsletter sneak peek)

The following meditation comes from my December 2021 issue of Nourish, which went out to subscribers earlier this month:

Dear reader,

Here we are in Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. It’s a season when Christians anticipate celebrating Jesus’ birth and the promise he will come again. It’s also a time when people of varied beliefs practice waiting. But what does it mean to wait? Here are three gifts I’ve gleaned from this spiritual discipline.


Waiting for wonder

We’re standing in line for “It’s a Small World.” Wiggly kids, sullen teenagers and tired parents crowd the enclosures surrounding us. Every few minutes, our group inches closer to the ride. After a morning of walking, my feet feel leaden.

“I don’t want to go on this ride!” my son says, yanking his hand from mine and pointing his torso toward the exit. He looks like he may bolt. “I want a hot dog.”

I sigh. I want to collapse on this cement floor or abandon Disneyworld altogether and float in the pool at the house we’re renting, ideally with a cocktail. (Too bad I’m pregnant.)

Instead, I catch Jack in my arms and hoist him onto my hip. “A hot dog does sound good. You can have one after we get off this ride,” I say, rubbing his back. “It’s hard to wait, isn’t it?”

Jack agrees, snuggling his head into my neck. The weight of his 38-pound frame combined with the babe in my belly presses down on me. The ride at the end of this queue promises wonder. Meanwhile, this posture is so uncomfortable. My husband Jay sees a look of pain cross my face and steps in to carry Jack. We move forward together.


Waiting for a child

According to my pregnancy app, my baby’s now the size of a cantaloupe. But tonight, all I can think of is his foot (or elbow?) jutting into my left rib cage. I shift from sitting upright on the bed to leaning on my husband to lying on each side, attempting to dislodge it.

“Home Alone” plays on the screen ahead of us. The last time I watched this movie must have been in the 90s, after it came out. Jay and I can’t help but see the character Kevin, with his bright blonde hair and playful eyes, as a preview of our son at eight. We agree that this movie hits differently now that we’re parents. My eyes well when Kevin finally reunites with his mother, and when the rest of his big family bursts in the door.

Soon our little family will grow from three to four. Our miracle, due this February, has been a prayer of mine for several years. At times, my longing for another child resembled an ache no medicine could soothe. Now, anticipating this gift brings a smile to my lips. Only a couple more months to go, I think, unless baby boy surprises us. Just then he turns over in my womb, offering relief and the reminder that change is coming – and change is happening.


Waiting for an answer

A book update: My coauthor and I are waiting for some news about our proposal. This wait over all the other ways writers are called to wait — for pitch replies, for revisions, for payment, for an agent — has been the hardest of my career. I’ve questioned my vocation more times that I’d like to admit. I’ve heard feedback that’s brought about despair. So I’ve recommitted to the work of writing. To trusting that, whatever happens with this proposal, I’ll keep writing.

Writing nourishes my soul like nothing else. Writing is my gift to others. Writing is worship. Being faithful to this call, rather than fearful of failure, is the stance I’ve adopted. I wait for an answer with open hands. I wait, committed to serving.


The gifts of Advent

Waiting for wonder, waiting for a child, waiting for an answer – it all sounds a bit like Advent, doesn’t it?

Waiting for wonder teaches that, however uncomfortable waiting can feel, we rarely wait alone. We experience the season of Advent with others, and this community is a gift to cherish. We can lean on each other for support and hope as we do the hard work of waiting.

Waiting for a child reminds of the duality of Advent: our days can be both painful and joyful, and their potency demands we pay attention to the present. Of Advent Henri Nouwen writes, “Waiting, then, is not passive. It involves nurturing the moment, as a mother nurtures the child that is growing in her.”

Finally, waiting for an answer allows us to loosen our grip on our perceived control. During Advent, we’re beckoned to shift trust from ourselves to a higher power, in my case, God, though for some it could be love or Christmas generosity. We adopt a posture of surrender while maintaining hope.

I don’t know what you’re waiting for this Advent. Maybe it’s for another season to begin. Maybe it’s test results. Faith. A new home. The feeling you’ve arrived. Whatever the case, know this: in the waiting, you are growing.

Keep awake. Stay attuned to all that Advent allows you to see, feel and experience. Know that waiting eventually ends, making room for peace, love and wonder.

If you enjoyed what you read, will you sign up to receive my monthly newsletter in your inbox? To learn more and subscribe, click here.

A few things I love

pink clouds

I love sunsets,
I love words,
I love paying attention to the movements of birds,
I love the warmth of a fire
and hearty conversation,
I love taking long vacations,

I love my husband’s strong embrace
and our son’s melodious laugh,
I love piping hot coffee with half-and-half,
I love fresh-cut hydrangeas
and a candle on my desk,
I love having really good sex,
I love minestrone and Aperol Spritz and fresh-baked baguette,
I love a Bad Day ice cream sundae to help me forget,

I love it when the clouds are painted cotton candy pink,
I love reading writers whose work makes me think,
I love practicing yoga
and walks in the woods,
I love seeing people collaborate for the common good,

I love the mountains,
I love to sing,
I love pushing my son on a tire swing,
I love MagnaTiles and Hot Wheels cars strewn across our carpet,
I love using drive-up order service at our local Target,
I love the smell of fabric softener wafting in the breeze,
I love how my dog’s presence puts me at ease,

I love being with friends who feel like home,
I love and crave more time alone,
I love baby announcements and heartfelt letters,
I love chunky and soft oversized sweaters,
I love rainbows, the first snow, calming waters, blazing leaves,
I love watching Hallmark Christmas movies,
I love feeling the wind tickling my hair,
I love how protests and petitions can be a form of prayer,

I love faith that makes space for questions,
the grace that sets me free,
a church that affirms each person’s dignity,
I love hearing my preschooler’s silly jokes,
I love listening to the stories of ordinary folks
I love art that’s beautiful and bold,
I love how writing invites me
to behold.


artist inspiration: Courtney Martin, Lemn Sissay, Ashlee Gadd + the Exhale Creativity writing community

Why I write

Why do cicadas hum?
Why do chickadees whistle?
Why do coyotes cock their heads and howl
in the vast darkness?

Because words are oxygen.

Because last summer you were playing
in the bathtub with your cars,
I let the faucet run too long —
I was nearby, absorbed in a story —
warm water sloshed higher and higher,
when I looked up, I laughed,
put down my book and asked,
“Honey, do you want to try floating?”
Kneeling on tile, I cradled your head in my hands
told you to “puff up your chest like a starfish,”
couldn’t stop thinking about that stolen summer
all we’d lost
all that needed mending
and then you floated,
fingers grazing the edges of the bathtub,
you beamed, and how else would I remember?

And how else would I remember
the warmth of my grandfather’s voice,
indigo mountains cresting over the horizon,
my first taste of watermelon, juicy-sweet wonder?

I sift words like grains of sand,
craft castles from memory,
some days, shaping it all is like trying to contain the ocean
— impossible.
Hands caked with salt water and sand
I build anyway,
each story
an offering.

A writer I admire once called writing
“a miserable, awful business”
and also “better than anything
in the world.”

She’s right.

Writing is the cure
and the sickness.

It feeds me
and empties
and fills me again.
It’s like confession
or communion
and perhaps that’s sacrilegious?
Mostly, I think it’s prayer.

Someone in a church I no longer know,
he said something like,
“Women’s voices don’t belong in the pulpit.”

He’s wrong.

When I set my pen to the empty page,
I only want to tell the truth:
half of my life I spent running
trying to make myself small.
These days I stand tall
and sing:
this is how I was created —
with whole symphonies inside
praising.

I know what the coyotes know:
my voice is my power.

Ode to light-catchers

After Dale Chihuly’s “Glasshouse”

Call it foolish, call it futile,
say flamboyant if you dare.
As for me, I’ll call it radiance,
suspended in the air —
a glass dragon roaring 
with amber, fire, maize,
mid-flight, bouncing beams,
ever-wrestling in its cage.
Or a vine of glossy poppies
honey, rose, persimmon glow 
floating high in a rare greenhouse,
never meant to seed or grow.

From my vantage point I watch
them juxtaposed against blue sky,
and Seattle’s Space Needle reaching
for the star that grants us light.
What was the artist thinking?
another bystander might ask.
Does a fragile glasshouse
matter amid brokenness en masse?
(All these tired, hungry people
looking for a place to rest.
Such extravagance demands
we raise our eyes, pause and reflect.)

Me, I could’ve stayed
for hours bathed in warmth,
beneath the sun
roused by beauty,
held by brightness
from the Maker’s hands was spun.

Miracles in the year of pandemic

// Spring //

They said we were experiencing a pandemic. They said that we’d be under stay-at-home orders for the foreseeable future. They said “don’t be afraid” but people were hoarding toilet paper and Lysol and it all seemed very apocalyptic, like a scene from Emily Mandel’s Station Eleven.

My husband tracked rising case numbers in an excel spreadsheet, while I coped by doom-scrolling doing downward dogs in the living room. Sleep came in fits and starts, and my appetite diminished. News of the coronavirus consumed us.

Yet, alongside my looping worry of “Would we be okay?” a peculiar thought arose: this sudden pause made me happy. I even declared to our preschooler that we were on a “staycation.” (Ha! An older, wiser Erin is shaking her head.) Five days a week, since he turned three months old, life was: rush out the door to daycare, rush from work to daycare pick up, rush through dinner to playtime, rush through bath time to bedtime. Rush. Rush. Rush. Rush.

I’d longed to be the kind of mom who was present and unhurried. 

In the year of pandemic, we could linger in bed on a Tuesday morning and discuss our dreams. Stay in our pajamas. Savor juicy blueberry pancakes and the view outside our bay window. Beyond the glass is a tree I never used to notice — red pinpricks fleck its branches in early spring before becoming pale green buds that unfurl into cream-colored blossoms.

My son Jack blossomed, too. He’d begun counting and recognizing letters. Snuggled under his comforter, he told epic bedtime tales of imaginary treasure hunts, races and rescue missions. Jack traded his red balance bike for an orange “big boy bike” with training wheels. He adored dancing. Together we’d twirl around the living room, accompanied by “Into the Unknown” and other songs from the Frozen 2 soundtrack. 

I witnessed it all. Miracle.

// Summer //

People picked up a plethora of pandemic pastimes: baking bread, cross stitch, watching Tiger King. (Remember that?!)

I started walking.

First as a means of self-care, an activity my therapist suggested I try to manage my anxiety. In the beginning, I took short bouts around the block with my dog Gus, usually over lunch or after dinner.

As the days warmed and lengthened, I began leaving Gus behind to explore the trail that edges our neighborhood. (A pug, he can’t handle much heat or distance.) I wanted to know where the path ended, and if I had the stamina to reach it. I wanted to see how far my legs could carry me.

The habit gelled. I came to crave the rhythm of my soles touching ground, my breath rising and falling, an inner stillness earned in the midst of motion. The kaleidoscope of wildflowers skirting the path, Northwest Chicago’s deer gracing me with their presence, other walkers on the trail. Open sky, open path, open heart. Walking became a form of prayer.

One summer night, reeling from the news, I walked and walked until I finally reached the path’s end. An OnBeing episode featuring author Jason Reynolds flooded my earbuds as I stood and surveyed a nearby baseball field. That dusty, empty field looked like it had been deprived of care for ages.

Black Lives Matter protests had erupted across the country and world after a white police officer suffocated George Floyd by pressing his knee on George’s neck for eight minutes and 15 seconds. George, a Black man, cried out for air, cried out for his mother, but was shown no mercy. Even typing this now I want to wretch.

Jason said, “Black folks have a right to have a conscious rage. … If you are a Black person who is conscious in America, then you are basically living in a state of anger.” His words washed over me as I stood outside that crappy baseball field and wept for our broken country. “How long, O Lord?” the psalmist cries. I cry too.

My feet drug as I trudged toward home. I had miles to walk and little drive to keep going. Up ahead, I spied a cloud of insects shimmering in the sunset. I veered off the path to investigate.

Ah, dragonflies! I couldn’t help but smile. I marveled at their circular dance and brilliant shine, even catching the eye of a fellow pilgrim on the path who’d stopped to watch. We shook our heads together in wonder.

In a chapter of Bittersweet, Shauna Niequist offers a meditation on the Celtic concept of “thin places.” A thin place is where the sacred and ordinary intersect, where the line between heaven and earth blurs. She wrote, “When we find a thin place, anytime, anywhere, we should live differently in the face of it, because if we don’t we miss some of the best moments that life with God has to offer us.”

It was a miraculous and biblical thing, those dragonflies soaring in the sun, lifting my heart, reminding me of God’s goodness. A thin place. A salient sign of beauty amid brokenness.

// Winter //

I was having a down day, one of those days when you move through life’s motions as if you’re a zombie. I needed a nap, and maybe some Advil for my throbbing headache. During December, it feels near sacrilegious to admit you’re hurting. But I was hurting. 

Christmas had come and gone, a quiet day mixed with joy and grief. We rejoiced over Jack’s delight as he opened presents. We grieved memories missed with extended family due to the pandemic. I’d just turned 35, a bittersweet day during which I reflected on two unrealized dreams: I longed for another baby. I longed for a book deal. Achieving both was taking much more time than I’d expected, and it felt as if both dreams might slip out of reach. If we ever conceived again, I’d have a “geriatric” pregnancy. And the writing workshop I did earlier that month, the one I hoped would advance my work in progress, had deflated my confidence as a writer. I felt lost. 

On that down day, I bundled up in my heavy coat and returned to the trail I’d grown to love. Clumps of snow and ice had infiltrated the barren forest, and the trail was a bit… slimy. With each mud-caked step, I attempted to untangle my thoughts.

In two of the three essays I’d brought to this workshop, the leader noted that it wasn’t clear to the reader if the narrator was okay. “Readers need to know their narrator is going to be okay,” she said. “I can tell she’s okay in this piece, but not the others.”

Those essays I wrote touch on dark seasons of the soul. Even re-reading them in the workshop made me agitated. I wasn’t sure if I, the author, let alone the narrator, had recovered from the trauma. I asked myself why I was writing this book.

I had reached a dead end. Ice-glazed trees shot up from a massive frozen puddle. There was no way around – too much ice. I needed to retrace my steps. Walking home, I recalled that I had written through these difficult times – a disorder, family illness, a faith crisis – to heal and to uncover hope. I wanted to write the book I needed during those seasons so it might bless someone else who needed it. Goodness grew in the darkness, I knew, I just needed more time to dig for it.

When you exit the trail that edges our neighborhood, there’s a gravely old road that leads you to the place where the sidewalk begins. Nearby you’ll find a lone old-fashioned light post, reminiscent of the world of Narnia, on a meticulous patch of lawn. The sight is a marker that home is near.

Is the narrator okay?

After I took up walking, I called it my escape. Most often I was escaping the house, the crushing exhaustion of working and parenting for months on end without outside assistance. Other times I escaped a deluge of deadlines or news of another tragedy. On the path I felt free, powerful and a little wild, like the fawn I spotted crossing into prairie grass one summer afternoon. She was so sure of herself and peaceful.

A block away from home, I increased my pace. In a couple minutes, I would walk in the door, shed my coat and be greeted by Jack and my husband. Jack would abandon his Magna-Tiles, hug me and invite me to dance. We’d turn on “Into the Unknown” once again and twirl until we were dizzy. Later, I’d return to the page, hunting for hope and beauty. I would not abandon the book, or my dreams of another baby. I would keep trying. I would be okay. The narrator is okay.

Maybe walking wasn’t so much an escape as it was a return. What was I returning to? Creation, of course. A semblance of community. Peace and quiet. Deep questions that niggled me. My faith. Myself.

Hungry for stories

bookshelves
photo by Janko Ferlic on Pexels.com

The vent above the laundry room, located directly beneath my bedroom window, was the best spot in the house for reading. The natural light there could not be beat, plus it offered peak airflow. What I’d do is snuggle my back against the white dresser, position my bottom and feet over the vent slats, then prop across my thighs my latest book — in fourth grade, I was fond of the Little House series — and lose myself in the story.

When the Midwestern wind howled at our walls, I’d tent a fleece blanket over my body like a Snuggie and grasp the magic tome that transported me out of the suburbs and into the frontier with Laura and her pioneer family. We collected sap and made real maple syrup, churned butter, carried out the day’s chores and danced to Pa’s fiddle in their cozy cabin. I was fascinated with Laura’s life: there was always something to do or explore, people used their hands to make everything from meals to calico dresses, and new adventures awaited every season.

I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tales in the mid-90s, an era in which I played Oregon Trail on early model Macintoshes and ate McDonald’s Happy Meals regularly. I imagined pioneer times with a great fondness, perhaps because I never felt like I fit in much in my small world. We’d moved to Aurora, IL, from Clarksville, TN, when I was in second grade. By the time I arrived on the scene, it seemed everyone already had a friend group at McCarty Elementary. I’d left mine back in Clarksville.

Books became my closest companions, my security blanket, my transport away from the loneliness that ached inside me. A quick and early reader, I was voracious for stories. I visited The Met for the first time thanks to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I solved myriad mysteries alongside the Boxcar Children. I became obsessed with hieroglyphics due to The Egypt Game

Then I found a girl in the pages of A Wrinkle In Time whose sensitivity and longing to be liked matched mine. The passage “‘Why can’t I hide it, too?’ Meg said. ‘Why do I always have to show everything?’” roused tears of recognition.

There was so much to learn about the world – and myself – and I was discovering I could do it through stories. Each book I finished left me hungry for more.

Woosh. After the vent in my bedroom blasted hot air, my blanket would trap it, toasting my body long after the air shut off. Between the heat, the light and these stories, I wanted to grasp onto the warmth I felt and never let go. 

***

My first real job after college was at a large, progressive church on the Gold Coast of Chicago. I’d grown up in a church due to my mother’s work as music director and organist for Immanuel Lutheran; never had I ever imagined working for one. I’d studied English Literature with a minor in New Media Journalism and, as graduation loomed, I dreamed of becoming an editorial assistant at a fancy magazine in New York City. Maybe I’d work at one of my favorites, Self or Glamour. Or I’d become a cub reporter for a local newspaper before moving onto the Chicago Tribune. I’d worked all four years at our college newspaper and interned at a magazine senior year. I thought I had a fleeting chance at making it.

My career aspirations disappointed those who asked, “What are you going to do with an English major? Teach?” No, I had no intention of teaching. I wanted to write. 

Instead I found myself situated in the old servants’ quarters of Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, copy editing bulletins. It was 2008, and the economy was in free fall. Unpaid internship opportunities beckoned, but I couldn’t afford to work for free. A chance job opening, passed on by a professor, led me to work here, at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and East Chestnut Street, where privileged shoppers met persons begging for coins, where rich and poor alike found solace from the city’s cacophony in the church’s gothic sanctuary. 

I would have missed this opportunity, were it not for Professor Ed Uehling. For the final required class for my major, I’d debated between a popular Children’s Literature course and Uehling’s course on Contemporary Literature. I chose his course, likely because it best suited my schedule. Thanks to him, I fell headfirst in love with the genre.

I feasted on Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Ann Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars. I savored Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter. The most delicious book on the syllabus was How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez. Each of these authors were still alive and writing to the world in which we lived. The thought exhilarated me. 

Even with (or perhaps because of) the pressure of OMG-what-will-I-do-after-graduation building in my head, I dove into alternate realities and faced familiar truths in the pages of those books. I wrote the strongest papers of my college career and developed a good relationship with Uehling. When he suggested I consider the editorial assistant opening at the church, I applied. At that point, I was desperate for paid work.

“She has been too frightened to carry out any strategy, but now a road is opening up before her,” Julia wrote of Yolanda, one of the Garcia sisters. “She clasps her hands on her chest—she can feel her pounding heart—and nods.”

Like Yolanda, I wasn’t quite sure of the path I was taking, I only knew I had to be brave and embrace it.

Several months into the role, I stood in the church narthex, slipping stacks of sermon booklets into the literature racks. Hands full, I resisted the urge to question if I was wasting my time here. After all, everyone had to start somewhere, and why not start with a salaried job with benefits?

The task completed, I turned and took in the expanse of the sanctuary – rows upon rows of empty pews; its vast, vaulted ceiling; panes of jewel-toned light that streaked down from stained glass creating a mosaic on the floor. Come Sunday these pews would be full. I’d witnessed it myself a handful of times. Though I was already intimately familiar with the church’s inner workings, it never quite felt like home. Especially on a Sunday morning.

Sitting through an unfamiliar liturgy, I longed for the Lutheran hymns and prayers of my childhood. But I hadn’t yet found a congregation of my own.

Each week, as I reviewed Fourth’s “News and notes bulletin” for typos, every book club or Bible study posting spurred unexpected pangs of jealousy. Young and new to Chicago, I realized something: I wanted what these people had – community.

***

A couple years later I was at my desk in the church reading during my lunch break when I happened across an essay called “What To Know When You’re 25.” It left me breathless.

I was 24 at the time, and work at the church had grown stale. I couldn’t figure out how to move forward so I just stayed there. Even though all our friends were getting married, my college sweetheart hadn’t yet popped the question, and I didn’t dare push him. Furthermore, we still hadn’t found a church for ourselves in Chicago. 

I was drifting.

How had the writer of this essay stepped inside my consciousness and rendered it in words for all to see? I couldn’t fathom it.

I printed her advice in my planner: “Don’t get stuck. Move, travel, take a class, take a risk. Walk away, try something new. There is a season for wildness and a season for settledness, and this is neither. This season is about becoming.” 

That writer’s name was Shauna Niequist, and the essay was from her book, Bittersweet. I later purchased a copy and practically inhaled its contents. Afterwards, I knew I wanted to write like her someday. More than that, I wanted to live her stories — rich stories of marriage, motherhood, close friendships and deep faith.

I was hungry for those stories. Now I needed to seize them for myself.

***

It’s 7:30 p.m. and my husband is putting our preschooler to bed upstairs. In our basement I’ve set up my laptop on a box and I’m facing a Zoom grid of nine other women. We raise our glasses — some filled with wine, others tea and one whisky — to the screen and virtually toast our friend Ashley for her recent birthday. Due to COVID-19, we’re meeting remotely.

Ashley thanks us, then remarks that it’s been nearly 10 years since we started this book club. Shortly after I read Shauna’s essay, Ashley joined the staff of Fourth Presbyterian Church. We became fast friends, bonding over books and faith and staff happy hours. 

On one of our lunchtime walks around the track near Northwestern’s downtown campus, I told Ashley how much I admired Shauna’s cooking club that she writes about in Bittersweet. I always wanted to have my own small group like that, I said, but my group would meet to talk about books. Ashley agreed that it sounded lovely. 

As we turned back to the church offices, I grew bold. “Well, why don’t we start one?”

Ashley turned to me and gushed, “I love that idea!”

We decided she’d host, and we’d invite some coworkers and friends from college. Our first book would be Unbroken, a fascinating true story of a man’s resilience captured by Lauren Hillenbrand. It was Ashley’s favorite.

That first meeting was a great success, and thus, we kept our club going. Over the years, we read contemporary fiction and nonfiction, occasionally dipping into the classics or poetry. We most often read books by women — Ann Patchett, Sue Monk Kidd and Elizabeth Gilbert were favorites. The year I got married, Ashley and some of the book club girls attended my wedding. The year I started working at my dream job as an associate editor for a magazine, we read Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist. On a cool spring night that sparkled with the joy of another dream realized, I hosted a foodie book club on Shauna’s Bread and Wine, complete with her mom’s blueberry crisp.

As some book club members inevitably moved away from the big city, we stayed in touch and kept recruiting new members. We’d celebrated engagements, weddings, promotions and new babies. We’d watched books we loved turned into movies and attended readings of favorite authors. My participation waxed and waned, especially the year I became a mother. Yet page after page, books brought us together. We created a beautiful story with each other in nearly 10 years.

Realizing I’ve been daydreaming, I redirect my attention to the computer screen. Tonight we’re discussing A Woman Is No Man by Etaf Rum, and one of our friends says she’s worried it promotes negative cultural stereotypes.

I disagree. This book covers domestic abuse and misogyny, I say, but it’s also about the unique strength of women. Though its heroine is isolated in her struggles, in the end, she derives courage to act from reading and from motherhood. The mothers in the group nod their heads in recognition. 

Conversation shifts to the next topic, and I think of a line of Etaf’s that drove straight through my heart: “It’s the loneliest people who love books the most.” 

I watch the smiling faces of each of my friends, some of whom moved years ago and are now tuning in for this special remote gathering, and offer a silent prayer of gratitude. Etaf’s words about loneliness may be true, but when bibliophiles come together, magic happens. In this time of COVID-19, while we cannot meet in person, when I long for nothing more than human connection, this feels especially significant.

“Reading her books, she was beginning to find a different kind of love,” Etaf later writes. “A love that came from inside her, one she felt when she was all alone, reading by the window. And through this love, she was beginning to believe, for the first time in her life, that maybe she was worthy after all.”

I smile and soak up the moment’s warmth, thankful for the young girl who loved books and the young woman who decided it was time to push her narrative forward. For the friends — in books and real life — who helped me see I am worthy.

Lessons from 2019

The Cut recently informed me that although some people don’t keep a diary, most of us have inboxes that serve as a “fossil record of our lives.” In other words, ancient emails are a window into our stories. Reading this, a small chuckle escaped my lips. I’d been sifting through emails the day prior for evidence to corroborate dates for an essay I was revising. What struck me most about my old messages was their tone. My voice seemed strange yet familiar, young but not naive, kind yet scared. Who was this woman? Me but different.

On this 20th day of December in 2019, 48 hours from my 34th birthday and 12 days until New Year’s, I wonder: Who was I on the cusp of 2019? And who will I become in 2020? The whole truth lies not in emails but stories —  lessons — from the time between. 

One: Why does it ache?

Trapped with my mouth wide open and torso at a 45 degree decline, I examined vintage Chicago posters while the dentist finished cleaning my teeth.

“Well, that’s it,” he said, putting down the floss. 

“So, you’re sure there’s nothing wrong?” I asked him, craning my neck to the side.

“Your teeth look great, though you’ll probably want to start flossing more — the gaps between them grow wider with age.” With the flick of his switch, my chair whirred to eye level.

I repositioned myself and tried again: “It’s just my teeth, they were so achy.” 

For weeks they’d ached, pain fading in and out. They hurt first thing in the morning and at bedtime. They occasionally woke me up at night. They hurt whenever I switched from one activity to the next, almost as if my teeth were petulant children demanding my attention. I brushed, flossed and went back to work, ignoring them. 

Little mouths needed brushing, dishes of every size kept piling up in the sink and deadlines too were stacking up in my planner. Visiting the dentist never made it on my lengthy to-do list; it got lodged in my brain someplace between almost out of dish soap and don’t forget to file your check requests before sabbatical. 

“Right.” The dentist nodded.

I licked my teeth and tasted fluoride. “And now they’re fine,” I said. Coincidentally, the week I made the appointment, my pain disappeared.

The dentist shrugged his shoulders and stood to leave. We’d already gone over this — no evidence of grinding or gum disease. No cavities.

“Sometimes these things have a way of sorting themselves out.” He smiled and moved to the door. Conversation closed.

It bothered me that the dentist didn’t have an answer. What caused the pain? I wondered, picking up my complimentary toothbrush and toothpaste and summoning my driver. I zipped up my jacket and waved goodbye to the receptionist. Moreover, how did it heal?

Outside crisp leaves tumbled across the street and wind cut through my jacket. Fall in Chicago is a short, poignant season one must be careful not to miss. The neighborhood trees were showing off gold, crimson and burnt orange and I realized I had the entire afternoon free before my son returned from school. I could go for a run in the woods or cozy up with a good book. Maybe I’d start a chili.

Waiting for my ride it struck me: I was no longer in a hurry.

I’d replaced piles of dishes and deadlines with extra playtime and travel. After months of making appointments for my son but not myself, I had an eye exam, annual check-up and this dentist visit. I was officially on leave from work and yes, life was slow.

For now.

Eventually sabbatical would end and working motherhood would sink its claws back into me. I smiled up at the gray sky. I wanted to hold onto this feeling — hope — and carry it with me to the next season. I wanted to start paying attention to pain, and to its release.

Two: A messy dilemma

I hold two passions in my heart: one is my family, the other, my career. I’m lucky I landed my dream job as a magazine editor. I’m doubly blessed I realized my dream of becoming a wife and mother. I’m living the dream.

Yet these two dreams often seem at odds with one another, and though I believe that’s a false dichotomy, there are days I curse motherhood for crippling my career and days I blame work for my lack of presence with my family. Both are lies. Both are true.

When my son’s weeklong spring break from school approached,  I submitted my vacation days and cleared my calendar just for him. In my planner, I sketched out daily agendas: on Monday, we’d go to Cafe Little Beans, on Tuesday, we’d stay home and watch Disney movies, on Wednesday, we’d take a nature walk, and so forth.

Wednesday arrived and I loaded up my son Jack and our dog Gus into the car and drove to the forest preserve for our walk. The sky was clear and blue, pale green buds sprinkled trees, and when we approached a clearing, I let Gus off leash for a romp in the grass. Jack pointed and giggled as Gus sprinted out into the empty field. “Go on buddy,” I said, gently pushing him forward. The ground was moist and smelled of yesterday’s rain. With a little coaxing, Jack made a beeline for Gus, who appeared to be drinking out of giant mud puddle. 

“Oh no! Wait. Honey, don’t go in there,” I yelled out, waving him back. 

“Mommy! A mud puddle!” He said, stomping his feet with glee. 

Too late. In an instant, Jack’s shoes were caked with black-brown mud. Then he plopped on his bottom and the mud speckled our dog’s white fur. Safely positioned on the edge of the puddle, I sighed, thinking of the bath they would need later. This was not on my agenda.

“Mommy!” Jack cried, pushing himself back up. “Come splash with me!” 

I didn’t want to go in, but in that moment I knew I could either be the mom who played in the mud or killed the fun. I had only 10 minutes left for this walk and zero supplies for clean up. This would surely dirty my car, delay our daily agenda and screw up Jack’s nap schedule. Plus I was wearing white-soled shoes. No matter what, this was going to be a mess.

“Mommy! Mommy!” my son called again, grinning. Gus let out a little bark.

This time, I didn’t hesitate. I stepped out into the mud to play.

Three: Brave

What I remember most about our conversation was his attitude. Leaning over his scotch at the bar top, my friend was the definition of casual. This was the same carefree guy I knew from college and also someone entirely different. He was a pastor, after all.

So when I confessed to him over drinks I still had doubts about my faith, I couldn’t have predicted what he said next. 

“Imagine how it feels when you’re the pastor,” he said throwing back a swig of scotch.

My mouth dropped. I stirred my seltzer water and searched for the right response. “You too?”

“I mean, who hasn’t?”

What I’d wanted from him was theology. Wisdom. A Bible verse to help me grapple with why my husband got sick and my dad got sick and why people kept getting shot by angry white men with assault rifles. I wanted an antidote to doubt.

Instead of that, he offered, “Me too.” My pastor friend understood the doubts and the questions and the creeping worry that death was just the end. What I wanted wasn’t what I actually needed. What I needed was a companion in doubt.

This conversation wasn’t an anomaly. I talked to many other pastors this year who echoed similar sentiments.

On a walk in the woods, I got to know a pastor who admitted she didn’t have the best answers to age-old faith questions related to suffering. At coffee, my pastor listened to my frustrations at length and nodded with understanding, quietly holding space for me.

Over pancakes, one very important pastor I admired told me he hoped I’d write about it — my doubts. I wanted to tell him I’d been trying to write about doubt and pain all year. Instead I sat and sipped my coffee.

I often wrote in the literal darkness. Early in the morning before my family woke. Late at night when they were asleep.

Entering the darkness in words doesn’t necessarily stump me, it’s the getting out that does.

Another pastor whose writing I adore wrote this of darkness: “Those of us who should follow Christ, therefore, should expect a lot of darkness. That is where God finds us and also sends us.”

Later, when it was time to make edits to a story I wrote that seemed too sad and irreverent, I discovered a shred of Hope threaded through my prose. I set down my red editing pen.

Perhaps exploring doubt is a sign of evolving faith. I’m finding there’s beauty in the darkness. I’m learning to pay attention to my pain — and joy. I believe I’m entering 2020 a little braver than before.

I wrote this post as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “2019.”

How to take a writing retreat

First things first, you pack your hiking boots, your books, your laptop and your notebook. Make that two notebooks. Plenty of pens, six pairs of socks, underwear, toothpaste and a toothbrush. Two sweaters, four long-sleeve shirts, four pairs of pants. The readings for your workshop, hot off the printer. Cash you forgot to get cash (you will get that at the airport). You tuck away your fear — fear of dying, fear of heights, fear of rape — in the side pocket, next to your hairbrush. Your unearth your winter hat and gloves, and just in case a pair of snow pants. Add courage alongside your laptop in your carry-on backpack. Make sure you have your chargers. Your suitcase is too heavy; you extract three books.

Last but not least “photo of your family” is on the list and you realize you don’t have an updated one in print. You decide the photos on your phone will suffice. (Note to self: Do *not* lose your phone.) You look at your packing list, most items checked off and a few abandoned (you have a tendency to overpack), and wonder if there is anything else you can take to prepare yourself for the journey. This your first pilgrimage to a destination you’ve dreamed of visiting since you were 20.

You’re traveling solo.

Heading into the dark to meet your airport taxi, you worry that maybe you should have brought your son and husband. You think this as you set your suitcase on the security belt, settle into your window seat, step off the bus in an unfamiliar city.

A day later you’ve arrived. No one knows you (yet), and unpacking your boots, books, laptop and notebooks, you feel the chill of sweat down your spine. You question whether you have the capacity to summon the story inside you. To enter the wilderness on your own.

In the library you find a book of poetry by Christine Valters Paintner. You flip to the middle, her words ring out sharp and strong: “This is a voyage best made alone.” You know what you need to do. You pick up the pen and begin.