Thursday, December 16, 2010

The ultimate massage

I can feel the anxiety churning in my stomach, ticking like an alarm clock, a reminder: you have a counseling appointment today. Ooh. Counseling for me is not entirely different from visiting a massage therapist for a chronic injury. I know it's going to be a little uncomfortable, at times a little painful, as those muscles are being worked on and the toxins released. But it's one of those weird "enjoy the pain" sort of deals, too. In the counseling office, I learn to embrace the pain because I know the knots being worked on need to be loosened, long to be restored. I don't want to live with toxic knots of tension.

I'll be honest, though, it feels like a lot of work. Like digging. Digging my way out of feeling stuck. Digging my way out of years of accumulated unhealthy mindsets, habits, beliefs and coping behaviors. Sometimes my brain and my emotions feel tired. Yet, it's a good kind of tired. A tired that reminds me of all those evenings in high school I'd come home after track or cross country practice and collapse on the couch feeling like I'd worked myself into a satisfactory exhaustion that day. I'd pushed myself to go farther, and I knew it, though I couldn't measure my progress yet. The real test would come on race day. Yeah, perhaps the experience of working in the counseling office (and outside of it) is a bit like that.

The main difference between counseling work and a hard track practice is that I wake up the next morning, not with sore muscles, but with something much less tangible, something with immeasurable value. I wake up with peace. And that peace seeps through to all those knots of emotional tension in my body, gently covering them like a salve. It's not a salve manufactured by my counselor or my own hard work, but by the hands of the most gifted Healer of all. With this salve, may I possess the courage to continue digging.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Five little words

Funny how God will confirm things, multiple times and in ordinary little ways, in areas that He’s recently working on in our lives. At least, He does this with me and I have a hunch I’m not alone. Take these sentences, for instance, that I read this morning from a book by Beth Moore, echoing things I’ve heard lately in the counseling office and through mesages at church:

I used to think that the essence of trusting God was trusting that He wouldn’t allow my fears to become realities. Without realizing it, I mostly trusted God to do what I told Him.

I’m growing convinced that the root of my struggle to turn the page in this season of life lies in the need to address and redefine what trusting God really looks like. I’ll be honest, the thought of trusting the God who’s allowed what I hoped He wouldn’t allow is more than a tad unnerving. It shines a glowering light on my inability to deeply, completely, truthfully, faithfully trust Him. It exposes my misperception and my fear. It invites me to lay down a flimsy masquerade of trust for genuine faith, a false sense of security for the real deal; to believe that whatever risk may come attached with that trust is, in the end, no real risk at all if I truly believe God is trustworthy.

There’s a couple verses in a certain psalm in the Bible that I really want to own. They could be pivotal for me, really, if I take them to heart daily, until they are a part of me. How they would challenge and transform any sense of dread or fear about the past or future, or even today.

[She] will have no fear of bad news; [her] heart is steadfast, trusting in the Lord. [Her] heart is secure, [she] will have no fear; in the end [she] will look in triumph on [her] foes. ~ Psalm 112:7-8

Is my definition of trust big enough where I can say, “I trust You, God. Period.” ? I’m not there, not even close. But it’s where I’m headed, and I won’t give up. Period.

Monday, December 6, 2010


I feel I’ve been on the road for a long time, trying to find my way home. Some time ago, what I called home appeared to pick up and move to a different neighborhood or city or country - whatever the case, its address changed. Or maybe it got a different paint job, went through some cosmetic remodels, and I’m unable to recognize it anymore, except when flipping through pictures from the past, a walk down nostalgia lane. Ohhhhh, that’s my home. I remember now...

Or maybe, home is right where it’s always been, but my eyes have changed and I can’t see it the way I used to. It’s blurry to me, feeling so close I could reach out and touch it, but not quite at the tips of my fingers. What exactly is home? Is it a person, a place, a community, a building, a state of being? Maybe it's some of these things but also something more, something greater, something, well, mysterious?

At church today, I was overcome by many sensations as I observed and participated in the worship. First, I’ve never been part of a “liturgical” church, and coming from a more charismatic background, I never expected one such church to feel so alive (just being honest). I don’t know how to explain it, but I’m a writer, so of course I’ll try. When I’m surrounded by this particular community of people, immersed in the worship and listening to the teaching, it’s like my heartbeat, so long slightly out-of-sync, finally blends in to add its unique rhythm to the beautiful beats around me. It just.... fits. Like my heart and mind and soul breathe a collective sigh of relief as I sink further into the pew, I’m home. Almost.

When I went forward to take communion, having only been to this congregation three times, I felt a pang in my heart as I tore a piece of bread from the loaf held out to me by one of the pastors, whom I’d just met that morning. Looking me gently in the eyes, he said quietly, “Christ’s body broken for you, Amber.” I moved to take the cup of wine, and the man holding the tray, whom I’d also just met that morning, said to me, “Christ’s blood shed for you, Amber.” Tears filled my eyes as I walked back to my seat, scanning the crowded room of people from all over the city, all walks of life, most of them I have never met. And I didn’t feel like just a face in the crowd. I was known. Not just because some pastors knew my name, but it felt to me like a sweet reminder that I was part of a family dearly loved by God, my Father, and even in the largeness of this family, He knows my name. He knows I long for home, for community, for belonging and purpose.

We sang a song in closing. Normally this song wouldn’t move my emotions the way it did, but today, I couldn’t make it through without crying. Holding the bulletin up to my face, I let the tears fall behind the paper, soaking in the words of hope and joy that I couldn’t actually get out of my mouth but were belting out from my heart as I listened to the voices around me.

On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye

To Canaan’s fair and happy land, where my possessions lie

O’er all those wide extended plains, shines one eternal day

There God the Son forever reigns, and scatters night away

I am bound, I am bound, I am bound for the promised land

I am bound, I am bound, I am bound for the promised land

No chilling winds nor poisonous breath, can reach that healthful shore

Sickness and sorrow, pain and death, are felt and feared no more

I am bound, I am bound, I am bound for the promised land

I am bound, I am bound, I am bound for the promised land

When I shall reach that happy place, I’ll be forever blest

For I shall see my Father’s face, and in His bosom rest

I am bound, I am bound, I am bound for the promised land

I am bound, I am bound, I am bound for the promised land

For I shall see my Father's face, and in His bosom rest... sigh. What could be a better home than that, than resting against my Father's chest (not literally, of course, but figuratively it's a beautiful image)? The hope of a home that will never move or crumble. It’s almost within reach, but not quite yet. A reminder that, close as I may come at times to finding "home" here in this life, it's meant to be illusive, unattainable. I won't fully unpack my bags until I reach the promised land and run into my Father's arms.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Morning exercise

It's still dark outside. But instead of watching the morning unfold from my usual perch behind the counter at work, I'm propped up against a pillow on a window bench at my favorite cafe in Ballard, observing the quietness of the usually bustling street as it wakes up. The rain falls steadily outside, painting drizzly streaks of polka dots down the window. Rap music fills the cozy, hip French cafe, an odd juxtaposition to a dark and drizzly morning. I don't work until later this morning, and tempting as it was to stay curled up in bed, I wanted to seize a rare opportunity to enjoy the morning from the other side of the coffee counter. I figured I could use the reflection time to set the course for this day, something that's gotten lost in my early morning work schedule. It's much harder to be intentional about starting the day out right when very little stands between waking up and starting work.

Hmm, intentionality, it seems I have lost you at some little juncture on the road. And I wonder why, when I hit the ground running each day, it becomes harder and harder to live out of a full reservoir. The "fruit of the Spirit", which I memorized long ago in Sunday school, may not be as evident in my life as I'd like to believe they are. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Just reading this list is an exercise in humility for me. If these qualities are hallmarks of the work of the Holy Spirit in my life, then friends, I confess I'm sorely lacking. And it comes back to that weighty little word, intentionality.

I've been thinking a lot lately about gratitude. About how easy it is not to notice God throughout the day, and in that lack of intentionality, that lack of seeing and hearing and touching and tasting and sensing, how hard it is to cultivate a daily perspective of gratitude. I hate to oversimplify life, to reduce things to a formula or a "key" to unlocking something profound. I'm not going to do that. But I've been thinking, if there were a key to living each day fully, what if it began with gratitude? Gratitude, like love, is a continual choice. I make the choice every day to live from a place of gratitude, even some days in spite of the challenges that are present, whether physically or in circumstance or emotion. I can choose to respond out of gratitude or react out of my unrestrained self. I can make the choice to speak kindly and gently, to be quick to listen and slow to anger, every bit as much as I can make the choice to speak quickly and sharply out of irritation.

I'm beginning to appreciate that gratitude and the fruit of the Spirit are exercises, developing spiritual muscles that don't just show up without intentionality and hard work. I may not like that, but I've got to admit, it appears to be true. Like physical fitness and toned muscles, these desired qualities and attitudes do not magically appear on their own. I've got to go after them, every day, relentlessly cultivating them in my life. No, actually, relentlessly coming to God and admitting that I cannot cultivate them on my own. I need the help of the Spirit. And herein lies the difference between self-help and God-help. Living out of gratitude and the fruit of the Spirit is not ultimately something I can achieve by simply having the right strategies, reading the right books and trying hard enough. It takes commitment on my part, but God does a lot of the work if I can be humble enough to admit I need his help. Every day.

The question is, if all I can ever be certain of is that I have been given this moment, what will I choose to live out of - gratitude or forgetfulness?

Sunday, November 21, 2010


What opening line could I begin my new chapter with? What would set the tone of the story to unfold? Today God clearly penned the first sentence on my heart: Thankfulness. It's too common to lose sight of God during the activities of the day, of the week, to take for granted that some things just happen because they should and to get frustrated or disappointed when things don't happen as (I think) they should. I take the gifts that God has given me and think, perhaps not deliberately but in my heart, that they are expected of Him. Such pride, softly disguised, seeping in, when everything is actually a gift graciously given. Even my very life is a gift sustained by the will of God as long as He chooses.

So I ask myself the question the pastor posed today at church: How much feast does God have to spread for us before we think, "Wow!" ? What has happened to the wonder, to my capacity to be thankful for both the pleasant and the unpleasant, because at the very least, I still have Christ? And I dare say I would never utter that He is not enough; yet that is how I tend to live.

I'm at a point in my story where it calls for the development of a new kind of faith. My "old" faith, the one I lived with up until my Papa died, was real and served me well through many things. But it all but crumbled in the wake of that disaster. It has taken me quite a while to see that my old faith was based on the principle of, "Live as if my dreams must come true and my fears not come near me." After nearly a decade of those dreams not coming true and my fears pounding down my door, I withdrew from God, as if He were suddenly a stranger, no longer safe.

I could write much more on that, and likely will as I go, but for now I will capture what is to be central to the foundation of my new faith. Simply put, if I cannot learn to be thankful for Christ through whatever comes along in the plot of my life, I cannot be thankful for anything. I've said it before, and it is time to remind myself again, that God owes me nothing. It is time for a faith that learns to truly hold my life and everything in it with open hands, an open heart.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Chapter one

I remember hating to lose as a kid. Not always because I couldn't stand the thought of someone else being better than me, as much as I couldn't stand the thought of my best effort not being good enough. Falling short was failure, and failure was bad; I obviously wasn't trying hard enough. So, I grew up being very competitive - with myself mostly. And it appears this mindset, threaded throughout my story, has prevailed throughout my life.

Maybe that's how I ended up sitting in a counselor's office recently, complaining of feeling stuck in life. My story seemed to come to a grinding halt over two years ago, when my Papa died, and the only story that I continue to tell is one of loss, marked by that tragic moment when my world as I knew it collided. My faith, my identity, my sense of purpose and direction in life, all seemed to crash and burn, and I haven't known how to pick up those pieces again. So miserable as it can be, I have continued to live and relive in that story, reading and writing the same page over and over again, hoping to make some sense of it enough to turn the page. I wrote months ago of being in a place of needing to turn the page and not knowing how. Even then, I finally admitted it was likely due to fear, but I still fought taking complete ownership of it.

Like a little girl losing at a card game, I decided I didn't like this losing business and set my cards down, walking away. I don't want to play this game anymore, I suck at it. In other words, this story isn't working out for me, not the way I planned. I began to sink into a funk, a bit of a depression, looking alright on the outside but full of anxiety, fear and failing hope on the inside. Funny how clearly this screams "control freak" and I thought I'd dealt with that already. As my counselor described, I've been frustrated that God isn't driving my car like I've asked him to, and yet I won't get out of the driver's seat. Last time I checked, two people can't drive a car. Oops, there's that "C" word again.

And then, the epitome moment came. That "aha" moment in the counseling office when I realized what needs to change. Not my circumstances per se, but me. Beginning with my beliefs. How easy, and yes, sometimes convenient, it can be to hide behind pain. To call myself a failure, to believe nothing good lies ahead for me in life, that my story has failed and now I'm stuck with what I've got, oddly enough there's something I benefit from with these beliefs. A false sense of security. If I'm a failure and I can't do much about it, I'm exempt from taking a risk that might lead to more failure. The familiarity of my failed story, painful as it is, can feel more comfortable than turning the page and beginning to write a new story. A new story whose ending I don't know, let alone what unfolds in the first chapter.

It requires laying down my illusion of control, as I like to call it (since, let's face it, none of us really have control), and deeper, choosing to believe God's character. There's a difference I'm well aware of between believing in God and believing God. One is more an intellectual acknowledgement, and the other, comprised completely of faith. And I'm thankful right now for my counselor, who having read some of my writings, is strong and wise enough to hold them up in front of my face and ask me, essentially, are these just words? Or do you intend to act on them?

It can be deceptively easy to put words on paper (or on a screen), sending theological and philosophical questions out into the stratosphere, and call that good enough. Sure, the questions in life seem to far outnumber the answers, but that doesn't mean there aren't answers. It's easy to ask questions, to feel helpless in the silence, but it's a hell of a lot harder to say, I may not know why my story is turning out this way and I certainly didn't choose all of this, but I can choose how I will respond to it and what I will believe about God, myself and life. I can choose to believe that a different story is not necessarily a bad story. And what I've deemed as failure isn't necessarily a failure at all, as much as a change of plot.

I've never wanted to be someone who writes what they cannot live out, so here I am, committing to the drafting of a new chapter with the true Author. Let the pages turn, I'm ready to be unstuck.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Songs of deliverance

I wait for You

Beside the bubbling fountain waters

Just to hear Your song in the night.

I wait.

I cry to You

Here upon this rain soaked rock

To feel Your touch again upon my heart

I cry.

And Father, You surround me

You surround me

You surround me with songs of deliverance.

The waters sing,

Calling out to my heart

Now is the time

Return, every broken piece that was scattered

You are whole. You are pure. You are renewed. You are lovely.


My heart leaps,

My fingers open

And the key that has no power over me

Slips down into the the waters.

And from the waters rise

You are free -

Free to love,

Free to be loved -

You are free, My child.

Be free.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The ground beneath us

I never used to notice the ground beneath my feet. Never appreciated how firm and dependable it felt, just took for granted that it was a solid mass. I’ve taken science classes and read the news stories of how the earth moves, of how it devastates when in one ordinary day what seemed immovable begins to falter. When those plates that are out of sight, out of mind below the earth’s surface shift, everything above begins to rumble and shake and tumble. Solid ground is no longer a casual assumption.

It’s difficult to know the scope of how such a rumbling and shaking changes you. How it shakes, not only your family and your memories, your present and your future, your physical and your emotional health, your friendships and relationships, but also your identity and personality. Your beliefs about God and life and meaning. It dangles truth in your face like a tattered question mark.

It often frustrates me that I am not as resilient as I used to be. No longer am I a fan of change, so flexible and adaptable, bending gracefully with each twist and turn and gust of wind. Towards life, I feel more like a pioneer in the race for a plot of land on the new frontier, staking my claim and hunkering down with vulnerability cloaked in weary determination. Change feels threatening, and I wish I understood why. Why sometimes the small things shake me, to the point of producing tears from a place much deeper than the prick that provoked these tears.

“After my dad died.” I wish this phrase weren’t so often the preface to understanding and explaining my reactions to life now. But it shook me, violently, and like a region that has experienced a significant natural disaster, where the recovery period extends for years after the tragedy, I am still rebuilding in the recognizable but highly altered landscape that is my life.

Growing up with God, though I was not sheltered from our own family pains and tragedies, I never questioned that he was solid. My rock. When things shook, he was immovable. But when my Papa died, so unexpectedly, so traumatically, everything shifted beneath my feet. I lost my bearings. God no longer felt safe, nor did life. I was introduced to the unsettling feeling that millions of others share because of what they’ve experienced: that tragedy can strike anyone at any time, unannounced. When the boy I loved broke my heart a year later, I again felt someone, something, I loved yanked from my hands unexpectedly. And while I’ve healed a lot from these losses, grown immensely through these losses, I feel the pain of the unfinished healing process whenever change is thrust upon me, whether big or small.

Change triggers fear. Fear springs from a lie I began to believe, beginning with my Papa’s death and deepening with the loss of relationship with the boy I loved. God is not safe, and not safe in a way that places his goodness in question. I am alone, left to face things that are once again beyond my control, and all I yearn for is a safe place. Solid ground. A place where I can settle in and rest, unmoved, unafraid that the people and things about life that I love will be jerked away. I want to catch my breath, to not be looking over my shoulder for the next bad thing to happen, to trust that some things are in fact real, albeit imperfect, even new love. But especially, to find that place of peace in God where I am settled in on the solid mass that is him, where all around me can shake but he doesn’t move.

I want to lay this lie to rest, this lie that I have no safe place, that nothing good in life will ever last, because it haunts me. Because it robs me of living life fully, of hoping for good things instead of fearing that bad things will always be lurking in the shadows. In the dark, this lie is huge and imposing, but there comes a day when it's time to face it squarely and flip the light switch on, to see it exposed for the wimpy, cowering creature it is in the daylight. Learning to trust again is a process; to know in the furthest corners of my heart that God may not be safe in all the ways I define the word, but he is forever good. That is the only unshakable ground.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Creative multiplication

Jesus, I love that you never get overwhelmed. Not by circumstances or by personalities, not by sin or by need, not by nature or by disease, and not by biological reasons, like hormones or lack of sleep. Time and time again when I come back to the story of you feeding the thousands of people, I’m first of all captivated by the fact that you didn’t run. If I had a horde of thousands of hungry, tired people flocking to me, I think I might run. I might hide. I might roll my eyes, let out an exasperated sigh, and mutter about why they couldn’t just leave me alone for a day. And that’s precisely one of a bazillion reasons why I’m not you. I get overwhelmed.

I love that you are incredibly resourceful in your creativity. Sometimes you create something out of nothing, but equally amazing are the times when you use what’s right in front of you to bring provision. You work with what you’ve got, even though you could pull a rabbit out of a non-existent hat if you wanted. And you did that in this story, when you fed the thousands.

I can really resonate with the disciples’ question when they took inventory of what resources they had to work with and brought the report back to you.

It wasn’t impressive by our standards. “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two small fish, but what are they among so many?” (John 6:9)

Man, does that hit home with me, Father. You ask what I have. I scramble around checking my pockets and wallet and refrigerator, my bedroom drawers and all my purses, my emotional reservoire and my dayplanner. And then I come back to you, saying, I’ve got sixty-five cents, a passport, a jar of peanut butter, a couple hours on Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and an emotional capacity of supporting one hurting person, but what good is that with so much need? Or, I’ve got a Master’s degree I’m not using; a decade of occasional spurts of focused pursuit in a direction, sprawling between long bouts of foggy wandering; I’ve got old dreams that are growing dusty and current dreams without an action plan; but what are they among so many?

Oh, me of little faith. I’m every bit as guilty as these dense disciples who, in chapter fourteen of Matthew witnessed your miraculous multiplication of resources and freaked out in chapter fifteen when the same scenario mysteriously happened again.

How many times have you taken my table scraps and made a feast for someone else to dine on? I don’t even know, but I do know it’s happened. I remember some of those humbling moments when, after feeling like I have nothing but cheese and crackers to offer someone, I stand back and watch you go to town like Julia Childs. And they leave not only satisfied; they leave blessed, encouraged, strengthened. You let me be the one to pass out the food, but it’s you who does the multiplication.

I never need to wonder if there will be enough with you. I never need to wonder if what I have to offer is enough for you to work with. If all it takes is faith the size of a teeny tiny mustard seed for you to move a mountain, then any little bit I have to bring to the table is enough for you to do something incredible, among one person or among so many. I'll just bring you what I have.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Pinto Bean runs out of gas

I was supposed to be attending my first writer's meeting with a group of writers in Bothell. I had a small window of time before catching my bus, so I optimistically opted for a run along the waterfront with Pinto. It would be our farewell run, the last one before I said goodbye to him tomorrow and gave him over to a new family. Conditions were perfect: sunny, late summer afternoon, clipping along at a good pace (well, for someone who hasn't run much in the last 9 months). Until we turned around at our mile and a half marker and started heading back. He decided he'd had enough of running and flopped down in the grass. Wouldn't budge. I coaxed, cajoled, and yes, begged and pleaded. Nada. Finally I thought, if I can't convince him I might as well join him, so I flopped down beside him with his head in my lap and petted him.

About ten minutes later, I thought that was a generous break and attempted to start running again. He wouldn't have a thing to do with it. Couples strolled by chuckling. An eccentric woman on a bicycle rode by leisurely and laughed loudly at my predicament. My dog was having a two-year old tantrum, puppy style.

Finally I got him to start running with me, as long as he was off his leash. We were cruising, he was loping along freely beside me. All was well. Until we passed a guy resting off to the side with his bike near the gymnastic bars. Pinto run right up to him and plopped down. When the guy tried to do his sit-ups, Pinto was right there, nose in his face.

I ran over, embarrassed and apologetic. "So sorry. C'mon, Pinto. Time to go." I started running, looking back, calling for him to come, but to no avail. The guy watched my pitiful attempt and shook his head, chuckling. After watching this act for a few minutes, he introduced himself and we chatted for a bit.

"I hate to say this," he said matter-of-factly, "But you have absolutely no control over your dog." He sounded now like he was trying to suppress some laughter, mixed with some pity, that such an ignorant girl ended up with such a smart puppy.

I laughed it off. "Oh, you think?"

I attached the leash to Pinto again, who stuck his paws out in front of him and flattened himself like a pancake. Stepping back, leash taut, I resumed the "Come, Pinto" routine. Tim the Biker stood by discreetly and finally asked if he could take a picture with his iPhone and email it to me. "You've gotta see this picture. You guys look so funny."

Tim took the picture and said goodbye, wishing me luck. I figured I would make the most of our pit stop and do some crunches and arm dips on the bars. A young couple wandered over and began using the bars beside us. I tried again to move Pinto along down the path. In a flash of brilliance (took long enough), I found a stick nearby and dangled it in front of Pinto's face, running off before he could snatch it. It worked! For about 25 yards. But Pinto did a U-turn near a bench where two guys were stopped on their workout routine. They weren't as chatty as Tim, so I managed to coax Pinto away from them, wave the stick, and get him to follow me further down the path.

After flopping down a few more times, the next stop was to chase another dog who was carrying a ball in his mouth. Pinto tailed him, round and round a field, down the forbidden beach and through the water, tongue waving in the breeze, while the dog occasionally turned his head to look back at Pinto, growling in displeasure at this intrusion.

I once again clipped Pinto's leash back on and we ran about a quarter mile this time. My hopes were beginning to rise, thinking maybe, just maybe, we were on the home stretch. But no, Pinto was done. Office hours were over. He was staging his coup, exercising his right to protest going home. I knew by now what this was all about. Pinto was not tired or sick. Pinto just hated being in that apartment, so much so that he refused to walk home.

The last person he passed out in front of was a girl studying at Mars Hill Graduate school downtown. I saw her psychology books and struck up a conversation with her, since I saw we'd be here for awhile. We shared some feelings about our grad school experiences and thoughts of what we wanted to do (or in my case, not do) with our degrees. A homeless man stopped and plopped down beside us, petting Pinto and commenting on all the people in the park in not so gracious language, asking the girl if she was old enough to smoke pot, to which she smiled politely and changed the topic. After a few minutes, he said goodbye and moved along, and we she wondered if she could help me get Pinto jumpstarted again. It was a nice thought.

This is it, I decided, gritting my teeth. Pinto's not budging, and I'm not going to be seen dragging a dog by his neck down the street, looking like a dog beater to all the Seattle-ites and tourists and families out for nice evening walks with their little ones and puppy dogs. Crouching down beside Pinto, I said goodbye to the girl and thanked her for her patience (we did interrupt her moment of privacy and study, after all). Then I slid my arms underneath Pinto's head and back legs and scooped him up in my arms. All 65 pounds of him, hanging limply. I almost dropped him as I tried to suppress my laughter at how ridiculous we must look. And then I started walking.

Down the waterfront path, past a woman with kids and an empty stroller who asked if I needed her stroller. Past the buses and taxis, the walkers and joggers, the park security guy and the people I'd passed several times during our stilted run. My arms ached, so I put him down, hoping he'd be ready to stop this childish act and walk like a decent dog. But he just gazed up at me with those sad, sad eyes and hunkered down in one spot like he was waiting for the end of the world. I sighed and whined and shook my head in disbelief. "So we're really doing this, huh? Really?? I can't believe you, Pintito." I scooped him up once more and carried him a little farther. We did this little routine all the way home, as I huffed and puffed for breath, tried to ignore the stares and grins of people driving or walking by (just so I didn't lose it and start laughing), feeling the sweat coming on, my heart rate accelerating, my arms entering into a state of exhaustion.

All the romanticism of a walk with the dog in the park drained away with my energy.

I didn't make it to my writer's meeting. But Pinto gave me plenty to write about.

Ai, Pintito. He ran out of gas.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Out of the cocoon

I've been drawn toward the forgotten ones, the "undesirables," toward suffering, since I was a little girl. I grew up around it, to some degree, being the daughter of a pastor with a very big heart. I tagged along with my Papa to visit elderly people in nursing homes, to befriend families in low income housing and bring them gifts, and I watched my parents care for strangers going through hard times whom we'd offer a place to rest for a night or a month. I watched them counsel and mentor people so naturally, with compassion, and I wanted to be like them.

Going through school, though, I didn't have a clear idea what I wanted to do for work someday. I dabbled in it all. Paramedic, firefighter, physical therapist, nurse, vet, animal trainer at Sea World, writer, actress, chaplain, social worker, counselor. I just couldn't find the fit I wanted. So finally, in my college years, I decided on counselor. I loved my psychology classes and felt I was groomed to be a counselor from my childhood. Throughout college, though, I never felt a passion for counseling. It simply felt inevitable.

I began to question this inevitability toward the end of college when I was introduced to the world of refugees through an internship at World Relief. What good were my Western counseling techniques among people from such different cultures, I wondered? After a year of social work experience, however, I knew that was not the best fit for me, either. It took me three years after graduating from college to convince myself I wanted to go to grad school and get my MA in counseling to work with refugees. My goal: to be in Africa, preferably in a refugee camp, offering mental health services to people who'd experienced extreme trauma.

I began grad school fueled with a passion and energy I never felt in college. It only took one quarter of grad school to know deep down in my knower that I wasn't destined to be a clinical counselor. I just didn't see it; didn't even want it. But strangely, I had no doubts I was to continue with the program, with the exception of a brief period when I wondered if I should have been in law school instead. I'll use my degree creatively, I thought. I'll still go overseas, this will be my ticket there. So I worked hard, with great passion, and finished my program at the top of my class, destined for greatness.

And then everything toppled. My dad's death came at a time when I was on the precipice of embarking on a new journey, but nothing was settled at the time; therefore, everything crumbled. I don't view this as a bad thing. I think these changes needed to happen. Yet it's been a continual challenge rebuilding from the ground up when I'm quickly approaching my thirties. This wasn't in my plans, for sure, as things like these never are.

As I've gained more distance from my dad's death and the great toppling that occurred, and as I've grown and experienced healing and learned more about myself, I've often been perplexed by my lack of desire to be a counselor. It's like my dad's death broke a box around me that needed to be broken. And while I don't have the desire to crawl back into that box and reconstruct it, it can be a little uncomfortable not having those walls around you at times. Having a structure you can point to when people ask what you're doing with your life. I have to have the faith now to believe that the structure being built out of my life is not necessarily one that is visible, as much as below the surface.

When I'm not feeling anxious about all these changes, I feel almost like a butterfly that's fighting her way out of a cocoon. Beating my wings, struggling to get out completely and finally be free to fly.

What I'm learning about myself is that, while I'm drawn to the forgotten, the marginalized, the suffering, I don't necessarily want to be immersed in it day in and day out. Counseling has never been life-giving to me, it's just something I can do well because I care about people. Relating to people and their suffering through writing and photography and the arts is life-giving to me. It allows me to experience people's stories, up close and from a distance. And it allows me to discover the beauty and hope in the process of suffering and the challenges of life, more so than counseling ever did. I feel free to be expressive and creative in these contexts when I'm not in the role of counselor. I guess it's a box I was never meant to be in.

That still doesn't leave me with the answers I so often desire. But I came across these verses the other day while I was reading a letter the apostle Peter wrote to the early churches:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God's mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:6-7).

I'm finding it requires humility and the casting off of my anxiety, to let go of my need to measure success or my worth by the world's standards. To let go of that pride, once more. To trust that God is building a foundation and a structure on that foundation that is not for my glory, but for his. And he never abandons his work. He builds things that are beautiful. And I may not see that very clearly, but I can simply believe him, that he continues to do beautiful work in my life because that's the kind of God he is. Sometimes I just need to be reminded, it's not about me. But I'm thankful for the ways he is showing me, as I'm fighting my way out of this cocoon, who he's created me to be. And it's different than I thought.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Deep thoughts on the bus

I'm not used to riding the bus anymore. I've gotten so spoiled having a car, so while my car is in the shop getting a face lift, I'm hunkering down and learning a few things about transportation, stories, and the value of time.

For one, though riding the bus requires more time than driving a car, and therefore, more preparation, the flip side is that you can enjoy more time in your day. Some of that time can even be spent reading (or sleeping). Whereas a car affords you the luxury (and often insanity) of dashing to and fro on a whim, it's not so on the bus. You can crowd more into your day with a car; with a bus, you accept your limitations. You can't be anywhere you want whenever you want, and sometimes, that means you go less places in the day. When I need to be somewhere, that can be frustrating, but mostly, I'm finding some relief in the limitations.

Riding the bus also offers you several opportunities to encounter interesting strangers throughout the day and brush shoulders with the lives of others with whom you share one tiny thing in common: a leg of the same journey. When you're standing in a crowded bus at the end of a long day and you're tired and wish for a seat, it's a sort of bonding experience to quietly share that with the other passengers who are crowded like sardines beside you. You realize you're not the only one feeling this way. It gets my attention in such a way, like a little nudge, as if to say, "Hey, look beyond your seat. Look at these other (sometimes weary) travelers. They have their own stories, too." It makes me sit up. It makes me wonder what their lives are like and if, as my Dad would occasionally wish to ask strangers, they're living good stories.

Yes, I would say that riding the bus forces me to slow down, to be aware of other lives around me, to appreciate those unique moments when strangers sharing a space connect. I'll be glad to have my car back, I'm not gonna lie. But I think I might continue taking the bus. Not only is it better for the environment, but it's a nice way to put limitations on my day and appreciate the time I have.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Learning curves

It's been a whirlwind of a month since my boyfriend and I adopted a 9 month German shorthair pointer from the shelter, Pinto. It was love at first sight for all of us, and we have truly loved and enjoyed him. He's an amazing puppy dog - we couldn't ask for better. But it's taken all of our time, energy and resources to work together to care for him - to a degree of sacrifice we weren't expecting - and after many hard talks, we've come to the decision that it would be best for all of us to find him a home that fits his needs better.

Since owning a dog, we've almost completely stopped salsa dancing. Everything is rushed. I hardly write and I pick up a book maybe a few minutes at at time. Ricardo buses back and forth between his office in Redmond and his downtown apartment, several times a day. I head straight from work to walk Pinto or pick him up and take him to a dogpark across town. Our conversations daily consist of puppy poo and his eating habits, what he's chewed that day, etc. My free time is spent researching foods that help dogs with diarrhea.

Let's just say, life has changed drastically. If we lived in the same place and were close to a dog park or had a fenced yard, things would be completely different. But Ricardo's apartment is downtown, and that is where Pinto has had to live. I've cried many tears this week over our puppy dog, feeling like a horrible "parent" for coming to this decision. Yet when Ricardo and I are gut-level honest with each other and ourselves, we both admit we weren't as ready as we thought to take on this level of responsibility at this particular place in our relationship. I guess sometimes the most responsible thing to do when you think you may have made a mistake is not to keep gritting your teeth and pushing forward, but turn around and take a different path. I don't like that, not one bit, but neither do I want to plan my life around a dog and that's precisely what we'd be doing if we chose to keep him.

In a city where people's dogs are their children - where there are a plethora of doggie daycares, dogwalkers, pet psychologists, doggie bakeries, natural pet care stores, dog parks and grooming facilities galore - it's pretty hard to admit that, while we love our dog and it's not his fault that we weren't prepared to take him on, we're not willing to stretch ourselves so thin to make it work right now. I just wish we didn't learn this after the fact, because I don't like going back on our commitment to him. I hope the most loving thing we could do for him is to let him go. And also, the most life-giving for us.

Augh, the learning curve can be painful. But we've grown a lot through this and will continue to grow, and we believe God's got a good home for our Pinto.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Flying leap

Too often I forget that I am not a mystery to God. Unlike any other relationship I've experienced or will experience, with God I am fully known. I can't even comprehend that, it's so foreign. So easily I lose the wonder of how, with that astounding knowledge, I am still profoundly and completely loved and accepted by Him. That no amount of bad behavior or saintly deeds will tip the scales of His love even one iota in either direction, of more or less love.

I know all this, and still, I overwhelmingly relate to Him as I do to human beings: with a slight sense of insecurity and doubt that anyone's love is actually immovable and everlasting. Even the ones who love you the most - perhaps a family member or lifelong friend or spouse - are not immune from disappointment. They may never stop loving you, but at some point in the relationship, they will be disappointed in you. Somehow, usually unintentionally, you will let them down, and they may love you through it but not without strain on the relationship. They had an expectation of you, fair or not, and you didn't meet it. Or perhaps, you will let yourself down, falling short of some mark you aimed for, causing scrapes and bruises to your sense of worth. If you haven't been there, and I venture that most of us have, you will be.

But not so with God.

If with God I am fully known, then He has seen my entire life and can have no delusions about me. God cannot have expectations of me, because He has already seen and experienced my existence outside of time, from beginning to end of my life. Without these expectations, how can He ever be disappointed in me, as that persistent fear tucked away deeply in the folds of my soul seems to whisper throughout my life?

There's a sobering vulnerability that comes with being fully known. If you think about it for even a minute, it can actually be a little frightening. And then, with time, this vulnerability gives way to expansion. Freedom, as far as the eye can see. There need not be any pretending with God, no performing or impressing or convincing. Only the humility that comes with vulnerability and the trust of true submission. Not submission in a heavy-handed sort of oppressive sense, but the kind of submission that says, "I trust you, with everything in me, and I receive your love." After over twenty-five years of consciously being on this journey of knowing God and being known by Him, I am still learning this. And when I find myself evaluating God's thoughts and feelings toward me based on my experiences with people and imperfect love and unmet expectations, I feel Him gently directing me back to this place of vulnerability. Reminding me that, while fully man, He is fully Divine, and wholeheartedly offers His love without fail.

In order to love more like that, I realize I must first accept it for myself. Thankfully, He even gives me the love to love Him, to love myself, and then to turn and love others. It's a beautiful, mysterious exchange that requires only, and yet sometimes difficultly, an open heart. To take a flying leap off the ledge of human reason and experience into the great Unknown of being fully known in God's arms - this is the challenge I face; we all face. To know freedom and everlasting love requires this leap. God, as often as I doubt Your love, please help me to take that leap...

Thursday, July 22, 2010


"The point of a story is never about the ending, remember.
It's about your character getting molded in the hard work of the middle."
~ Donald Miller, A million miles in a thousand years

Just a few nights ago, I was venting to a wise friend about my frustration with where I'm at in life, compared to where I thought I'd be by now. About all the things I've spoken, dreamed, studied and written about for years that have yet to become real experiences, due to either my own choices or curveballs life has thrown at me that changed the course I was on. And so after listening quietly to me for several minutes of working myself up over it all, he said something that I did not like at all. He said, "Amber, it sounds like you have been reading the same page over and over again. Maybe it's time to change that page, because until you do, you'll continue to be frustrated. But the thing is, I don't think you want to change that page yet."

I sat there, a little stunned, and I immediately fired back, "No, that's not true," or something brilliant like that. And then I gave him my list of reasons why his assessment wasn't accurate. He didn't understand my special circumstances or challenges of the past several years. He didn't know how many times I'd already tried to change the page and failed. I wasn't afraid to change the page, I said, I just didn't feel like it was time yet and I needed something to change it to first. I'm not interested in making a big change just because I think something needs to happen, I added. I'm having to learn to wait on God.

"Ok," he said simply. "But I still think you don't want to change the page."

The thing is, I haven't been able to get that conversation out of my head. It's stuck in me like a little prickly burr.

And then I read this little snippet of conversation in a book about creating the stories we want to live, and this famous guy, Robert McKee, who knows all there is to know about the elements of story and teaches it in workshops said this:

"Writing a story isn't about making your peaceful fantasies come true. The whole point of the story is the character arc. You didn't think joy could change a person, did you? Joy is what you feel when the conflict is over. But it's conflict that changes a person... You put your characters through hell. You put them through hell. That's the only way we change."

It made me stop. It made me think. About how my character has been shaped through conflict and going through hell the past two years. And about how much more development my character needs to experience. It made me a little tired to think about, because I don't know if this guy was talking about searching for conflict to put ourselves through. I don't think that was it at all, because conflict seems to find us whether or not we're looking for it and I'd rather not go looking for more, though I know it will come in time. I think he was talking more about putting ourselves in a place of risk and sacrifice. So I began to think, what risks am I taking in life right now? Am I taking any new risks, or am I reading and rereading about old risks I have taken, studying the same page over and over again? Darn it all, maybe my friend is smarter than I thought.

For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to live an epic story. I've wanted to give myself to something that requires great sacrifice and risk, something way bigger than myself, something that will share life with others. The thing is, maybe my friend is right. Maybe I'm a little afraid to change that page. And maybe I haven't changed that page because I've been too focused on figuring out the end instead of stepping out into the throes of the middle. I don't know what to do about that, but I know I don't want to just write about it. I think there is much truth in learning to wait on God and not forcing a page to turn, but I also think God knows when our hearts are ready for turning and when they're not, and only God can give us eyes to read what's written on our pages in a different light.

So this is my prayer: God, give me eyes to read and courage to risk turning that page.