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.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The story within a Story

It's probably not shocking to anyone who knows me or has read my writing, that I tend to be a bit of an introvert. Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not, like, socially awkward (most of the time) and I get a lot of joy from being around people (most of the time). But after a few days of straight people time or busyness, I notice the gas light goes on in my soul and I need to withdraw, just for a few hours, or maybe most of a day, to rest and refuel. And so during this refueling time, I guess I can live in the life of my mind. I love to think and mentally dig around and ponder, about a lot of things, and sometimes that means I can think way too much. I've learned, over the years, that this introspection can work for me or it can work against me. Balancing it, however, does not always come easily.

So it shouldn't come as a huge shock to anyone who knows me, either, that when I think about the story I've been living the past two years, I can think myself into a frustrating hole. I see a lot of positives, and I can admit to a great deal of growth, and I can see God's unmistakeable fingerprints all over the process. But when I look at this story with an eye to decipher it, explain it, or prove some kind of success through it, I come up short. I admit, after all I've unlearned over this journey, I still gravitate toward understanding this story I'm in as if there's a Point A, moving toward a Point B in some linear fashion, with some distinguishable markers in between. Garbage, that's what that mindset is, but still I have remnants of it that I'm trying to shed.

For some reason, this Two-Year mark that looms ahead of me is huge and somewhat intimidating, maybe even more so than the One-Year mark. Why? Well, it's like I picture myself standing in front of a mixed audience, of strangers and acquaintances and coworkers and friends and family, in a business suit that's a little too tight and Armani for my taste. I'm projecting a Powerpoint presentation, with my bullet points and pie charts and hard data, hoping to convince them that I've done something with my life and with this tragedy of losing my dad and everything else that followed, something that explains why it looks like I'm off the charts in No Man's land, wandering between Point A and B, like I may never make it to Point B. And I'm starting to sweat and my face is turning a shade of pink, because somehow, I've got to account for that deviation from the path I was on. I've got to justify the Plan. I've got to prove my success. Little do they know, or maybe they're all well aware, I've got no Plan, at least not in the way I used to define it. It looks like I'm winging it, and hey, maybe I am.

And in this little scenario I've pictured, things are not going so well, because I know I can't fool the audience with some numbers and figures and data, and quite frankly, I don't want to. I've long grown weary of the Powerpoint presentation approach to life. And that's when I remember something I've heard from the mouths of several different people from different places, something that's stuck with me because it sounded more like something God would say than someone like me or you would say. And that something I heard, please don't pass over it too quickly because on first glance it seems cliche, but in pondering, it's actually life-altering. Really.

God isn't interested in my being successful; He'd rather I be faithful.

I can't explain why I am where I am two years after my dad's death. I can't answer when I'll move on from Starbucks to find a "real" job (whatever that means), or how I'll use the degrees I have to earn a living, or why I finished grad school in the first place when I knew I didn't want to be a counselor. I don't have an answer for when I'll go to Africa or Haiti or some other place overseas where I would like to be, or what I'll do when I get there. But somehow, when I think about that something I've heard, I feel a huge weight rolling off my shoulders, and the sweating stops and I unbutton my suit and begin to breathe normally again. I shut off the projector, close down the Powerpoint, and take a seat. This is no longer the definition of success I have to live up to. The greater thing, the thing that is, over the long haul, much more difficult and yet far more rewarding, is that I learn faithfulness. But what exactly is faithfulness? I found it helpful to look at some synonyms for that answer (compliments of The American Heritage Dictionary).

Faithful, loyal, true, constant, fast, steadfast, staunch
These adjectives mean adhering firmly and devotedly to someone or something
that elicits or demands one's fidelity.
Faithful and loyal both suggest undeviating attachment.
True implies steadiness, sincerity, and reliability.
Constant stresses uniformity and invariability.
Fast suggests loyalty that is not easily deflected.
Steadfast strongly implies fixed, unswerving loyalty.
Staunch even more strongly suggests unshakable attachment and allegiance.

So this is more like God's definition of success. It also happens to be a good description of his character. I can't say I fit that bill, but it sure beats any five or ten year goals I could have for my career or personal life. I can't accomplish this with my resume or sheer determination, only with grace as my constant fuel. There is no "arriving" at faithfulness, only moving deeper into its realm. So, with the Two-Year mark in view, I refuel my tank with grace and press on, press deeper, that my story in this next year would be woven with the beautiful threads of faithfulness.

The story within the Story, however, is that God's faithfulness to me will always, always far outshine my faithfulness to him. That, more than mine, is the Story I wish to live and tell.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

the dance

If ever there were two mismatched partners, it seems, it would be joy and pain. Imagine the two, dancing together, what an absurd picture that would be! Wouldn't they repel each other, instead of moving fluidly, gracefully, as one? Perhaps, but maybe not.

You see, I think Garth Brooks, the great country lyricist, was onto something when he wrote, "Life's a dance you learn as you go: sometimes you lead, sometimes you follow." Sometimes joy leads and pain follows, and sometimes, pain leads and joy follows, but the two must learn to dance in sync together, responding to what the other is doing. Such is life, I've been learning; to be a whole person is to open yourself to both joy and pain. As humans, we naturally embrace joy, but we cringe at pain and seek to shut ourselves off from it, going to great lengths to avoid it. Even to the point that to always be happy is seen as virtuous and enviable. We don't envy people for experiencing and expressing pain. We may admire them, but we don't wish to be them.

But isn't it both, dancing together throughout life, that lends depth and meaning, compassion and grace, wisdom and humility, to our character? I surely don't need to envy anyone's pain; that is sadistic. Nor do I need to admire how "good" they are in the midst of it. But neither do I need to fear pain or shrink from its touch. Whether I like it or not - and let's be honest, who likes pain? - the two are not such unlikely partners after all.

As I approach the two-year anniversary mark of my Papa's death, I feel the energy between these two dance partners heating up within me. Joy and pain, pain and joy. I think of him, and I feel joy leading during the song of his memory. And then, the music changes, pain takes the lead and the dance steps intensify. I cannot think of him without both; indeed, as much as I loathe the pain, I don't want it to be all joy in my heart. I need both in this dance. They substantiate the memory of his life. It is more real this way, more human, to feel both. And so, I let go once more, I open my heart, and I let them have their dance.