Friday, September 30, 2011

Edging into mystery

It's amazing how many bloggers are out there.  I mean, I click on this real time world statistics website, and a number flashes across the top of the page, the digits spinning, telling me how many blogs have been posted today worldwide.  It opens at 2 million five hundred something thousand and two minutes later it's still spinning, increasing.  Now it's nearly reached 2 million eight hundred thousand blog posts just for this day, but I know it'll just keep spinning its constant updates.  

It appears we have a great deal to say about an endless variety of topics.  

As a younger writer, I always thought I needed to write about something I knew really well.  Be an expert, or close to it.  When people asked if I wanted to write a book, I'd scratch my head and do a quick mental inventory of subjects I knew fairly well and also felt inspired to write about that I could possibly have enough words inside me to write a book about.  I'd usually come up empty.  Not sure, I'd confess.  Maybe some day I'll know enough.  

I'm not exactly sure when I first realized I could write about what I didn't know, outside of an argumentative essay or research paper.  I guess I was ripe for it, life converging in the perfect conditions for this type of writing.  Before I saw it as a type of writing, though, I saw it as a way of living.  There's a slew of buzzwords and phrases zapping around our culture, and two of them just happen to be near and dear to my heart and writing this year: authenticity and living in the moment.   I've never much been one for liking the things considered trendy or popular.  If I like something, I want it to be, well, authentic, an accurate representation of me, not because everyone else likes it.  So as much as I hate to admit it, I jive with this word and phrase, but not in a pop psychology, self-help sort of way.  They just coincide so well with my journey as a writer, and more, as a person.

This year, I've been learning how to see.  Learning how to look up from the madness or monotony or whatever we want to call it that can be our everyday lives, and truly see the beautiful little details of a moment.  The more I see, the more aware I become that life is indeed a profound, mysterious, glorious gift.  Not just the "good" moments, but every moment.  It's all grace.  The only way I've been able to see all this is through a perpetual learning curve of studying and practicing a life of gratitude.  Changing my language, which shockingly, changes me.  This has transformed my writing.  It still is.  I didn't know there's a name for this kind of writing.

Writer and pastor, Eugene Peterson, says in his newly released memoir that this type of writing is called "heuristic."  He describes it as "a way of writing that involve[s] a good deal of listening, looking around, getting acquainted with the neighborhood.  Not writing what I [know] but writing into what I [don't] know, edging into a mystery... Writing as a way of entering into language and letting language enter me, words connecting with words and creating what had previously been inarticulate or unnoticed or hidden.  Writing as a way of paying attention.  Writing as an act of prayer."

I alway appreciate when someone else is able to articulate something I can relate to, something I care deeply about, in such a way as to bring insight and relief.  Yes, there's actually a feeling of relief to be able to put words on something that previously I didn't have words to describe.  I don't feel the need to start calling myself a "heuristic writer" or anything, but I like to know that someone else gets it.   

And by the way, the numbers are still scrolling.  I'd better get this blog posted to toss my pebbles into the worldwide stats pool.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

In honor of Fez

This is my third blog about my good friend's dog, Fez.  I just have to write one more in honor of his memory.  This week, I found out Fez was taken from my friend's home by a coyote.  I heard the news and immediately felt shock and sorrow.  Perhaps there isn't much else I can write that I haven't already said about Fez.  He truly was a one-of-a-kind chihuahua.  In the times I've been to my friend's house, he never ceased to make me smile and sometimes laugh harder than I had in a long time.  He just had that effect on me.  Fez had a flair for comedy, and the funniest thing was, he was like a cantankerous, quirky old man who wasn't trying to be funny; he just was.  

Fez possessed a wide variety of barks.  I'm sure I only experienced a handful of them, but I'm well acquainted with the "Get away from me, don't even think of touching me" bark, the "I don't need your help getting up on this sofa" bark and the "Don't forget about me here under the dining room table" bark.  My absolute favorites were his "I love you" bark and his singing.  Let me tell you, this dog could sing.  I'm told he had his favorite songs to sing along with, that when he'd hear them, he couldn't contain himself.  I will always cherish the memory of sitting around the dining room table with my friend, some of her family, and Ricardo's family, listening to Fez sing along with a song.  I'll always remember the open-jaw, stunned faces of Ricardo's parents, his dad whipping out the video camera to record this moment.  I'm fairly certain they hadn't seen a dog like this in Mexico.

My friend's son posted this video of Fez on YouTube.  This special dog will be sorely missed.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Risk-taking has been on my mind a lot lately.  For one who has lived much of her life afraid of making mistakes, it's first a little dose of terrifying and a lot bit of exhilarating to toy with breaking free of this fear in a big way.  I'm reaching a place in life where it's necessary to choose between what is safe and known and or embrace what is authentic and true to who I believe I'm  becoming - without knowing the end result.  I guess that qualifies as a great risk.  I admit, I feel some nervousness, but mostly, I feel a deep longing to take the path that requires life to be so much bigger, God to be so much greater, than I can comfortably predict. If God is only as great and faithful and capable as far as my imagination stretches, I am merely worshiping myself. 

And so, in the words of some late greats...  

"What great thing would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?" -- Robert Schuller

"Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome." -- Samuel Johnson

"Never let the odds keep you from doing what you know in your heart you were meant to do." -- H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

"A man would do nothing, if he waited until he could do it so well that no one would find fault with what he has done." -- Cardinal Newman 

"Security is mostly a superstition. Life is either a daring adventure or nothing." -- Helen Keller

"And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom." -- Anais Nin

"One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time." -- Andre Gide

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Plastic balls and mariachi

When I was in fifth grade, my sister had a hamster named Gorgeous.  I always got a big kick out of telling people the hamster's name, because hamsters are cute and fluffy with little button eyes and twitchy noses, but gorgeous is a stretch for any rodent.  One of our favorite activities with Gorgeous involved sealing her in one of those clear plastic balls that we love to put rodents in and watch her roll around the house.  She got around pretty well and we'd giggle when she bumped into a wall or roll down a slope.  Gorgeous may have thought she was free in that ball.  Really, she was encased in a clear plastic prison.

I wonder how many times I've thought I was rolling through life free like Gorgeous, all the while in my own transparent confinement.  Sometimes I don't know it until I bump into a wall.  In terms of freedom, the wall may be an obstacle all on its own, or it may be protection, but the clear plastic ball only allows me to travel wherever the ball fits.  I know this: I don't like to be boxed in.   That's why I so appreciate people and circumstances that help me shrink the ball, or climb out of it altogether.

In high school we lived in a fairly multicultural neighborhood in Portland.  Lots of Romanians, Vietnamese and Mexicans.  After getting my driver's license I remember stopping at traffic lights and I'd hear the car beside me before I saw the driver, and I just knew he was Mexican.  I tried nonchalantly to glance over my shoulder and, sure enough, he'd be leaning back in his seat with one arm outstretched to the steering wheel, blasting his mariachi music.  Sad to say, I'd roll my eyes and think to myself how far his world, his tastes, were from mine.  I couldn't conceive of a day when his culture would be appealing to me.  I was in a ball and didn't even know it.   

Saturday night, Ricardo and I are at a birthday party for one of his friends, from Guadalajara.  His friend loves to make a type of torta, or Mexican sandwich, that is unique to Guadalajara.   A large roll of bread is cut in half and filled with carnitas, shredded pork, and frijoles - or in my case, just frijoles - and placed in a plastic bag.  A delicious, mild but flavorful red salsa is spooned into the bag until it drenches the torta.  Then it's topped with a spicy dark red sauce, shredded lettuce and slices of onion.  The torta is eaten straight out of the bag and dunked back in the salsa as needed.  It's definitely a treat to dine on these tortas, and we enjoy them with tequilas and cervesas.  It's just me and a bunch of Mexican guys, eating, talking, watching Mexican soccer, playing cards.  Toward the end of the evening, one of the guys decides he really wants to sing karaoke.  He hooks up his i-phone to the tv and begins to beautifully belt out songs in Spanish.  The other guys join in and there's this sense that an ordinary party has just been turned into a fiesta, and then one of the guys, a Dj, brings in a huge speaker on a tripod.

 Spanish music and enthusiastic male voices now blare from this house at eleven pm at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in Covington.  In Mexico, apparently these types of spontaneous parties are normal and one never needs to worry that their neighbors will be calling the police.  These guys close the doors and windows a little and continue singing.  I laugh happily, looking around at the guys, listening to the singing, smiling at Ricardo's beaming face, and I'm really enjoying this.  Either my plastic ball shrank or, at least in this capacity, it's gone, and I feel like my person is growing.  I confess to the guys, I never thought I'd love mariachi.  I'm glad I was wrong.

Monday, September 26, 2011

In so many words: thoughts on running, risks, and life

I'm born to run, I just feel it, in the way I feel the emotion of the violin singing to me from its belly, hear it dancing across its strings.  Of all the things I've wanted to do that fade in and out with the seasons, this one remains in a stubborn, relentless passion.  I know I am born to run hard and fast and long in the way I live this one life I've got.    

Perhaps it's coincidental that I also love to run, physically speaking.  I grew a love for running in high school, and my Papa would remind me on occasion before a race of the famous words of the great runner, Eric Liddell, from Chariots of fire: "I believe God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel his pleasure."  I was never a running champion like Liddell, but I think I could feel the pleasure of God coursing through my veins and spreading across my face when I'd run (except when I was in pain, which was often).  I ran through injury after injury, and I sat out for awhile due to injury, but I was always chomping at the bit to be back on my feet, flying across the track, the trails or even just the pavement covering the miles around my neighborhood.

About two years ago, my right knee started hurting.  I'd had some minor knee pain before and it always went away on its own.  So I ignored it for awhile, ran through the pain, because it disappeared  ten minutes into a run.  But one day a few minutes in, I felt my gait turn to a limp and I knew with a sinking dread that I couldn't run through this pain anymore.  I needed to walk.  But I didn't completely stop running, not yet.  I would still try to go for a run, optimistically, and as soon as the limp started, slow to a walk.  I did this for a month or so.  I couldn't accept that I just needed to stop running altogether.  

I've been to three physical therapists and a sports medicine specialist since then.  No one could really tell me what was wrong with my knees; by this point, the pain had jumped to my left knee, too.  All I knew is that it "could" be this or "may" be that, but it didn't appear to be anything too serious.  It just may be that my running days are over as I knew them, and all the cracking and popping noises will never go away.  When I decided to accept this change in my body, I embraced other athletics, not as a means to an end, to cross train until I could run again, but as my new exercises themselves.  I turned to biking and yoga and salsa dancing, and in the end, I fell in love with the dancing, crackly knees and all. But I never really gave up on running entirely, thankfully, because just two weeks ago I competed in my first triathlon and felt amazing.  My knees didn't feel as fantastic as they did in high school, but still, I passed by runner after runner with great surprise and finished in a sprint.  I felt God's smile. 

I remember running free, running strong, for mile after mile, pushing harder and harder.  I remember doing track workouts during and after college, just because I missed the satisfaction of utter exhaustion.  I miss those days of running without wondering if I'm hurting my knees.  I miss the feeling of challenging my body without a sense of physical limitation.  I had no delusions of being a champion, but I truly felt I could do just about any physical challenge I put my mind to.  

I used to feel that way about life, too.  Youthful idealism, I suppose.  It's been tempered through the years by the unexpected, uncontrollable stuff of life.  When I finished college, I believed I could change the world.  Even greater, I believed I would.  Up until I finished grad school, I nurtured this belief.  I didn't want to live a safe, convenient, comfortable, and in my mind, mediocre, life.  I wanted nothing more than to live this one life, this one story, as strong and hard as a born runner.  And then my story threw me quite a curveball, as many have experienced, and I opted to change directions.  I couldn't limp on this one, I just had to walk it out.  And three years later, I'm just starting to run again, but it's with these creaky, crackly knees and only once or twice a week, but still, it's running.  Back in the time before my story changed its shape, I thought running hard and living well was mainly about performance.  I thought changing the world and not living safe and comfortable had to look as extreme as living in poverty in the ghetto somewhere, giving my life to those in the most dire of circumstances.  Anything less than this, I was convinced, was settling.  I shuddered at the thought of settling, the worst possible fate.  If I'm enjoying my life, I thought, I'm too comfortable.  If I settle down anywhere, not taking enough risks.  Really, I'd later learn, I was just afraid.  Terrified, really.  Of failure, of not living up to who I thought and others thought I should or could be.  Not living up to my potential, that was my greatest fear.  

Now I shudder at the pace of life I used to keep in order to live this belief, stay ahead of this fear.  It wore me out and I didn't even know it, until my dad died and I was forced to take a look at the rubble of what had been my life.  Until I had to decide if in rebuilding my life I wanted to rebuild it as it had been, or something new, something even sturdier.  Instead of continuing to mourn my inability to run, I learned to open my eyes and see new pleasures.  Life slowed down tremendously and my body and soul seemed to heave a huge sigh of relief.  I honestly wouldn't give that up, wouldn't go back to the way things were, even if it seemed more purposeful, more successful, more whatever than my life seems now.  I have more peace now with myself, less attachment with a certain outcome in life that bears down with this grinding pressure.  I can just be me.

Some may laugh, but last night, I had this whole emotional revelation after watching a Disney movie.  Hey, I'd laugh at me, too.  Mom convinced me I needed to watch this movie, Secretariat, based on the true story of the greatest racehorse who ever lived.  And she was right, it was a touching story, inspiring on more than one level.  

First, there was Secretariat's owner, Penny, a woman in the 1960's and 70's, who loved this horse enough to take a huge risk on him.  Her family thought she was crazy, investors thought she was crazy, the world of racehorse owners and the journalists covering their stories thought she was crazy.  She recognized in him that he was a horse who loved to run, who needed to have his chance to race, and she believed unflaggingly in his abilities, even when others scoffed at her.  And then there was Secretariat himself, the horse who had good breeding and lots of talent but an even bigger dose of heart.  Ends up he did what no other race horse had been able to do or has done since his time.  He ran on heart, I think.  Later that night, sitting on my bed, I began to remember myself as a young girl and a younger woman.  I wouldn't trade what I've learned or how I've grown to get my idealism back, but I couldn't help but mourn the loss of that girl with the heart to run as hard as she could, who believed she could.  

Alone in the room, I sniffled, whispering aloud, "Does she still exist, that girl?  Or has she been lost forever?"  

I didn't hear any reply.  But a thought, an impression, settling gradually in my heart: Nothing is ever completely lost.  "But how, how do I get that heart back?" I ask.  I thought of my triathlon, of how I didn't think I could do it with the condition of my knees now.  I thought of how it felt to swim and bike and run my heart out, without the expectation that I would win, but just with the gratitude that I could begin and even finish, that I could simply enjoy the moments given to me to push hard.     

I finally turned the light off and laid down to sleep, thinking of Secretariat running like he had nothing to lose, of Penny living with the guts to believe she wouldn't fail in her risks taken on Secretariat, but even if she did, knowing that she'd find her way.  Maybe it's one of those answers, as with so many others, that I need to live into day by day.  But I wonder if it doesn't begin with just admitting that I was born to run, that this is who I am.  That failure could never take that away from me, but I could take that away from me if I choose to deny who I am.  

Friday, September 23, 2011

The beautiful ridiculous

My blog tends to err on the weightier side of matters of life, and I'm ok with that. Some other writer taking up a blog on the topic of "beautiful rubbish" might opt for a more humorous style of story-telling, and I'm ok with that, too. My purpose is not really to be funny, though I certainly enjoy it when it comes out naturally. My main objective is to be real. Sometimes a raw, get-under-your-skin kind of real is what I'm after, and sometimes, it's more the everyday stuff of life. All that to say, I like things of substance, and when it fits, I like to throw in humor, and some days, I just like to toss substance to the wind and dabble in the ridiculous. Because the ridiculous, in its own silly way, is also a type of beautiful rubbish.

On a side note, I think a writing instructor would probably flag that first paragraph as a "disclaimer," a form of resistance in writing, and tell me to knock it off. But what the heck, I feel like a rule-breaker today.

I pretty much read the newspaper only in the break room at work. It's usually strewn across the table so I can graze through its contents at my convenience. I really do value being well-informed about what's going on in the world, but like numerous others, suffer through the newspaper like trying to chew those really nasty tasting vitamins we were fed as kids. Mom fed us two different kinds of multivitamins when we were little, depending on which ones were on sale: Mighty Mouse or Flintstones. On Mighty Mouse days, sis and I would take turns excusing ourselves to the bathroom and flush them down the toilet. On Flintstone days, we were happy chewers. Mom was onto us, of course, and nixed the bathroom breaks after awhile, but sis got clever and when we moved from our house, Mom found old vitamins in every nook and cranny during her clean-up.

I'd say much of the news are those Mighty Mouse vitamins, though, I doubt they contain many good nutrients. And a few parts of the newspaper are like my Flintstone vitamins. For me, the weekly feature section on local events, restaurants, the arts and entertainment is the very best. There's always something cool going on, some celebration or new restaurant or cafe to try out, some festival to attend, and in the midst of all the depression that the newspaper reports on, this is a welcome breath of life. On many occasions, I've broken the silence in the break room with a burst of laughter, sometimes accompanied by food particles flying from my mouth, unfortunately, because of something silly I've read in this section.

Several months ago, I got a huge chuckle out of this:

"Adopt an overweight cat and get a $1 per pound discount at Seattle Humane Society in Bellevue." Really? I mean don't get me wrong, I completely support the adoption of chubby cats and I think it's sad that they probably have not received a healthy diet and exercise, but that issue aside, whoever thought of that marketing ploy is hilarious.

Today, it's the wording in the movie reviews section:

"Rated PG for some mildly intense scenes of dolphin discomfort." That's a new category I hadn't considered in a movie rating. I wonder if PETA had anything to do with that one.

Or the film that contains "a couple of episodes of mass destruction that rival Cecil B. DeMille at his most biblical."
Yes, I'm a nerdy writer who finds amusement in word choices, but I guess you just needed to be there.   Totally Flintstone-quality stuff.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Imagination uncorked

Putting thoughts into meaningful words early in the morning is not as easy a task as I thought. I can only use that topic for my blog once before it's old hat, though. This morning, though, my mind is floating, drifting, a boat that's been untied and is rocking in the calm current at pre-dawn on a lake. I can't pretend to have any real inspiration this morning. Why not ponder something that is worthwhile, then; something that anchors my drifting thoughts?

This statement catches my eye in a book I'm reading: "I could more easily contain Niagara Falls in a teacup than I can comprehend the wild, uncontainable love of God" (Brennan Manning, Ragamuffin gospel). I underlined it yesterday, and then I moved on. How can I move on so quickly, so easily, from a thought like this one? Now I'm reeling my mind back in. Stay here for awhile. Heck, stay here forever, on this one thought, and I'll never be lacking for inspiration.

Why do we so often try to tame God, try to quantify, qualify his love, reduce it to the rational? If you don't believe in God, I have no desire to argue with you. I don't think the existence of God was ever meant to be an intellectual argument, as if we had a vast enough mind to comprehend and dissect the existence of a divine Being greater than ourselves. If you do believe in God, but you're not sure you believe in God's wild, uncontainable love, then my question for you, for myself, is why not? I mean, if it's too good to be true, too big to be rationalized, beyond scientific explanation, beyond our experience, couldn't that be an answer in itself?

Imagine, every day, waking up and being caught up in something so wild it cannot be tamed, so adventurous it can never be boring, so fulfilling, so joy-inspiring, so peaceful, so liberating, so mighty it cannot be overcome, so undeserved it neither requires or desires payback, so life-giving, so healing, so affirming we are made whole. I wish this is how I woke up every morning, but I can start with this morning. As soon as I begin to imagine that this is too good to be realistic, that this is the stuff of fairytales or crazy people or dreams, or for someone other than myself, I challenge myself to keep imagining. You can try it, too, if you want. Let's just see what happens.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The tales of scars

I'm twenty-one, I think, and I'm balancing wobbily on a skateboard in my flip-flops, pointed straight downhill. I've never really ridden a skateboard downhill before this moment, but for some odd reason, today I want to impress the nine year-old brother of one of my friends. He's a skater kid, and I want to show him I can do it, too, even though to him I'm ancient. And I would have made it the whole way had I not faltered in a moment of insecurity at the end of the street. Down I went, colliding with concrete, a mere flick of the skateboard's wrist. I have the purple scar on my right ankle to prove it.

At twenty-one, I thought scars were kinda cool. At thirty, scars feel almost embarrassing, as if broadcasting to the world, "Hey, look, I'm never going to grow up." Scars also seem more like blemishes at this age, ironically, blatant imperfections, in a culture obsessed with flawless skin and bodies that aren't supposed to look their age. Somehow I imagine thirty year-old women shouldn't be getting scars from skateboards and road bike crashes and rollerblading and various outdoor adventures (work-related scars don't count, right?). But I guess I'm not what you'd call an average thirty year-old.

But of course, there are other types of scars, too.

The type that aren't visible to the naked eye. By the time we're thirty, we often have our fair share of them, each one telling a story we might not wish to share. Maybe we do our best to cover them up, put make-up over them, or maybe we proudly display them, pretend like they don't matter when deep down they're still a little tender. We all have scars. Childhood scars, teenage scars, adult scars, scars of every shape and size, some self-inflicted, some inflicted upon us by others, some inflicted by nature, by life itself.

Our maintenance guy at work today is talking about the scar on his hand. He got it from fixing our sink, and he says it has gotten him a lot of attention from the ladies. He sounds proud and looks at me a little bit mystified, like he possesses this deep secret of unlocking the hearts of women everywhere, and it's his scar. I kind of chuckle to myself, this six-foot-something of a guy in his forties with tattoos all around waving his scar around like a ten year-old boy. He says to my coworker and I, "I told my son that scars are evidence of a life well lived." And I think about that and nod my head slowly, ok, that's a little bit profound. The man's got a point.

I think the stories behind some scars are really dark, really achingly painful. Many times, those scars bear stories of some kind of injustice. Some scars tell stories of adventure, heroism, athleticism or lapses of it. Some scars bear witness of great endurance in the face of suffering, of tragedy, of loss, of broken hearts. The thing is, as with so many things in life, I'm discovering, any type of scar has the potential of telling a tale of victory. Of a life well lived. And I'm not talking well lived in the sense that mistakes haven't been made or injustices happened, but well lived like a pair of well worn hiking boots. Those boots have gone places. Those boots have seen life and gotten dirty and taken risks and made memories and been stretched to their limits and still refuse to be retired. That's what I think scars can say about us. We've experienced life - the beautiful and the ugly and the indifferent and everything else in between - and we've pressed on to become who we are today, to embrace what comes in life and pursue healing and learn from it, instead of living in regret or denial.

Perhaps scars are still cool, no matter what age we are.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

My little big sis

My big sis is petite, standing three inches shorter than me. It wasn't always that way, of course. There was a time when I was smaller, another lifetime ago it seems.

She and I have almost always gotten along with each other, but we haven't always been friends. I think as a little girl, three and a half years younger, I seemed more like a nuisance much of the time than anything else. I wanted her to like me. I wanted to be like her. But I was the little sister who lovingly terrorized her favorite cat, who wanted to borrow her toys and her clothes, who'd sit in her room with eyes begging for her to pay attention to me when she just wanted some privacy, who'd grab the attention of the camera or her friends, who'd pretend to hear creepy noises at night when she was babysitting me. I was that sister.

On some rare occasion, my little-sisterness worked to my advantage in her eyes. Like the time a boy who liked her in high school showed up at the house and she just wanted him to get lost but couldn't tell him that. She came to me, a little desperate, asking me to do something, anything, to distract him, maybe even drive him away. I eagerly agreed, running up to him and yanking him by the arm to the front yard. I strapped on my metal framed roller skates, the old school ones, and proceeded to do cartwheels and various versions of gymnastics across the front yard. He watched with a polite smile stretched tightly across his face, glancing nervously over his shoulder toward the house. After maybe ten minutes of this show, he must have excused himself, told my sister goodbye, and gotten the heck out of there. I remember my sister hugging me, so grateful, and feeling a rush of satisfaction that I'd been able to help her out.

And then I entered high school and she started college and life in our family was all jumbled up, like a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. That's when we became friends. I remember us starting to share clothes because we wanted to, going shopping together, talking about life together. I sensed her protectiveness and it was new to me and I loved it.

I was never the real mushy-gushy one in the family. It was Mom and sometimes sis who cried at Hallmark commercials and cheesy tv programs, not me. I swore I'd never cry at a wedding. But standing in the doorway of the church on my sister's wedding day, I turned around to give her one last look before I walked down the aisle. There she was, a glowing vision of white, her brown curls and big Bambi eyes locking with mine, holding onto Papa's arm. Before I knew it, my eyes were puddles and it was like all the years of our childhood flashed before my eyes, pausing on this moment, on my beautiful grown up sister in her wedding gown. I felt more love in that moment than I knew what to do with.

Eleven years, the births of two adorable children, the loss of our Papa and the celebration of many milestones have passed since that day. Time and laughter and tears and hours of listening and venting and sharing have grown us up into the kind of friends I always hoped we'd be. I still look up to my sister. I still want to be like her in many ways, and yet I appreciate our differences. I respect her and she respects me. When I'm with her, I feel as comfortable as I am when I'm alone, saying little at times and chattering nonstop at other times. We store each other's memories, as far back as each of us can remember, and that is something no other friendship can experience.

I love you, sister sally sassy sue. There can be no other you. Happy birthday.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Staring down a full house

I just finished a conversation with a friend about detours in life; about loss and grief; about failures; about losing a sense of direction. He tells me of this painting he had a painter friend of his create for him. "Paint the moment in a man's life when he realizes all his young man dreams will not come true." In the painting, the man is sitting on a stool, his head in his hand, staring off to some distant place, deep within himself. Reds, greens, blues and black fill the background with emotion. This is a mid-life crisis picture.

I tell him I think I went through my mid-life crisis at twenty-seven. When my Papa died and my huge dreams died and I realized, gradually, I wouldn't be changing the world in Africa. Not even in Seattle. Who am I, really? I wondered. Like the man on the stool, I felt I'd been stunned with a flood of emotion: the realization of who I really was versus who I thought I was or who others thought I was or who I thought I wanted to be.

What is success, this friend and I ponder together? When we focus on what we perceive to be our biggest failings, are we blind to the successes? Perhaps, I suggest, the big goal in life, the real success, is quietly staring us in the face. It is not in what we do after all, but in the type of person we become.

In church yesterday, the pastor is talking about "abiding" in Jesus. This is a beautiful word for dwelling with, making our homes with, staying with. Abiding. He uses a poker game as an example in his closing remarks. There comes a point in every poker game, he says, when one player decides to go all in. Nothing held back, this player looks at his cards and pushes all his chips to the center. When we're looking at the gospel - the good news of Jesus' story, which is also our story - it's like we're staring down a full house, the pastor says. Why wouldn't we go all in? What have we got to lose and what could possibly come along that would be better than this?

So, too, there comes a point when we can decide to go all in with Jesus. Waking up each day and living as if faith in him means something, as if his love is vital to us, as if we could not live without him. Surely even in this decision to go all in, cast all our chips to the center, we will have failures. But really, what failure is there if all bets are placed on him, because he cannot fail. I realize I'm talking now to people who are convinced as I am that there is no more worthwhile pursuit in life than Jesus, but who also struggle to live it.

I walk away from my friend and sit down to write, sit down stunned. We wonder, so much of our lives, it seems, what we should be doing. Wondering if we've been successful, or if we've failed big, how we can become successful in light of all these failures. And I wonder if the real success is in going all in, every day, and on the days when I don't go all in, taking my chips back to the table and pushing them all toward the center.

Friday, September 16, 2011

To Naphtali, with love

You know how your mind can be on one seemingly mundane thought and then as rapidly as a few blinks of the eye, multiply into a dozen trails of thought like a cell dividing, and it stuns you a little, how you get here after starting there, with that thought? Yeah. Our minds are crazy things.

I'm pretty sure my original thought yesterday was about whether or not I should do this writing program after finding out it costs twice as much as I thought. From there, I started thinking about grad school, feeling some of that guilt of the well-educated who aren't "using" their degrees in the manner in which they originally sought, wondering how responsible it would be to pay for more education, even if it wouldn't put me in debt, even if I'm not gainfully employed in my field of study. Wondering if I even deserve more education when I've had so much.

And I got to thinking, even without being employed in the mental health field, is my Master's degree a waste? If it never earns me any money, will I regret that I went through the program, invested the time and money in the education? I wonder, what exactly makes an education "worthwhile"?

I'm accustomed in our culture to looking at the merit of education predominantly from the standpoint of monetary pay-off. Money. That's what matters, isn't it? Did you pay for your education through obtaining a well paying job as a result of said degree? If that is my justifies my education, then I admit, it was apparently a wasted investment. I should have done something else...

Unless there is some other measure of worthwhile. Something that no price tag or economic value can be placed on. My mind continued multiplying this thought, and the thought that emerged was a picture, actually.

The face of my dear friend, Naphtali.

If I were never in grad school, I would never have met Naphtali. We became friends pretty quickly. I remember sitting in the same section of the classroom as her, admiring her full head of dark chocolate curls. She was quiet, maybe even shy, but I saw glimpses of something else in her that peaked my curiosity. Here was this quiet girl sitting in lecture, every now and then muttering hilarious sarcastic comments very few ears could hear. She's feisty, I thought. I wonder what else she is. Over the next two years, I learned that she may be quiet in groups; she may not be quick to open up, but when she did, I felt such deep honor, like I was invited to witness some part of her that not many people were able to experience; she was one of the most incredible listeners, so perceptive and intelligent and full of wise counsel; she possessed a sharp sense of humor and quick wit, and when we could laugh until the tears pooled in the corner of her eyes, the sound of her laughter was the greatest thing.

Just after grad school ended, my Papa went into the hospital. Eight days in a coma. I didn't call many friends up, but that day he fell, I called Naph. And she came. She made me dinner that night, the longest day of my life, and sat with me as I tried to catch a late-night nap. We talked every day, and if I needed her, she came to the hospital. If I needed some break from the sadness, she helped me to smile. She sat with me by his bed, witnessing my pain, spilling her own tears, entering into this nightmare with me. She was with me even as he took his final breaths. I will forever remember this great sacrifice of love and friendship. How could I ever put a price tag on Naphtali's friendship? Were I to say grad school wasn't worth the money I paid, the time invested, it would be like saying her friendship wasn't worth it.

And so my mind finally settled on this profound thought: knowing Naphtali is of exceedingly more value to me than any monetary argument I could make for justifying my education.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Psychology and coffee

After awhile of working as a barista, I begin to see customers as their drinks. Quad grande vanilla breve no foam guy. Half-caf grande nonfat no whip pumpkin spice latte lady. Iced venti no room americano dude. And so forth. I make this remark to a cluster of regulars today and they burst into laughter. I often try to know a little more about them than their drink preference, it's not that this is all I see, but really, a person's drink can paint a visual of them in an odd sort of way. I guess you could call it barista vision.

If a customer's drink preference can give me a little window into who they are, then how people respond to the occasional inconveniences that arise within a little kiosk tells me even more. I'm a psychologist by training. I can't help but study people, because people are fascinating. I try not to make over-generalizations, or simplify people's lives or personalities too much in our brief interactions, but I'm fascinated by how different everyone approaches life.

Today, for instance, it's our bustling morning rush and we have our brewer down. Which means we're out of brewed coffee, americanos, iced coffee and iced teas. Not a small inconvenience, I know. My partner and I present customers with the choice of upgrading from their desired brewed coffee, americano, etc. to any kind of latte or mocha for the price of their less expensive drink.

Customer number one responds, with crest-fallen face: "My heart has just sunk." He doesn't know what else he wants. Finally he settles on four shots of espresso for the price of a tall drip, but he doesn't look happy about it.

Customer number two responds with a squeal of joy: "You mean I can get a triple grande pumpkin spice latte for the price of a drip coffee??? This must be my lucky day! This is just - well, it's just magical!"

It's not that I'm faulting customer number one for his disappointment. After all, I have no idea what else is going on in his life. Maybe his regular cup of coffee is the highlight of his day right now. Maybe he just doesn't care for lattes or "fancy" drinks. And whatever the reason, I respect that. But the different response from customer number two breaks through our slightly tense morning with refreshing joy. She is so adorable, in fact, that I'm grinning and I'm making a mental note as I watch her: I want to have this attitude toward life. Like, whatever comes my way, the choice of how to interpret it is mine. I can choose grumpiness or disappointment or entitlement or frustration, but I can just as well choose gratitude or flexibility or joy. It really is my choice.

And, I don't know, I find that incredibly liberating, even as it passes the greater responsibility onto my shoulders. Because the reality is, it's not really circumstances that have the power to snuff out my joy or rob me of a grateful heart. It's just me.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Spicy peanut soup

While others are feeling a little down in the dumps about the sudden turn of grayness here in Seattle yesterday, I'm feeling energized by the pre-autumn chill in the air. I think I realized that, while I love to cook in general, I'm not so much inspired to cook in the summer. Maybe it's the sunshine beckoning, making me choose between being indoors cooking or outdoors playing. Maybe it's the warmth and my appetite for simple, fresh, uncooked foods in such weather. Whatever the reason, as soon as the clouds roll in and summer packs up, I dust off the old recipes, like old friends, and get to cooking.

Yesterday, it's gray but still in the 60s, and I'm determined to make a big pot of soup. Yep, I feel it; it's a soup night. I set to work chopping vegetables into fine chunks. I begin by cooking the onion in a soup pot, sizzling in olive oil and crushed garlic. Then I add the color: purple potatoes, red peppers, green zucchini, orange carrots. After a few minutes, I add one of my favorite spices, chili powder, more generously than the recipe calls for. Another minute of sizzling, then I add the vegetable broth, the yellow kernels of corn, and the chunky peanut butter. My tummy is rumbling in anticipation as it inhales the spicy peanut aroma.

The finished product is ladled into my bowl and sprinkled with a peanut garnish. I think I am alone tonight, left with this huge pot of soup, but the beautiful thing is, I end up feeding three other people, and isn't this one of the greatest delights of cooking? For it to be shared.

I have loved the summer that surprised us late this year and have not wanted to relinquish it too quickly. But big pots of soup shared on a gray evening, and later, pulling a loaf of freshly baked pumpkin chocolate chip bread from the oven, these help me let go and embrace this day and a change of season.

Welcome, autumn days and cooking nights. Welcome, spicy peanut soup and pumpkin chocolate chip bread.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


I'm laying on my tummy on the carpet in the living room, my Bible opened to this book called Hebrews near the end of all the books. I know a lot of Christians read their Bibles faithfully every day, or at least multiple times a week, and say it's very important to do this. It's a spiritual discipline. I've grown up that way, and I believe it's true, but I still haven't heard many Christians admit that there come seasons in life, maybe even long stretches of time, where it's hard to pick up the Bible.

It's hard to read it sometimes, when I've read it for so many years, and not lose the wonder. I haven't heard many Christians say that, even though reading the Bible is a very important way of getting to know God, like reading his biography, it's not the only way to know God. Anyways, this is a topic of conversation all by itself and not really what I intend to write about today, but I guess I need to preface with that confession. Sticking with the Bible without it seeming dry at times, while not the Bible's problem but my perception, nevertheless is no easy task, no matter what anyone says.

So here I am, reading in this book about the ancient Hebrews, how when they wandered for forty years in the wilderness. And this is the reason stated for the long wandering session: "And to whom did He [God] swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief" (Hebrews 3:18-19).

I've wondered for years, what exactly is the definition of this "rest" God refers to? It's clear that he's not pointing to some eternal rest in the afterlife, but a rest available here on earth, now. And they missed it, because of unbelief. Of all the disobediences we can have in this life, not believing God appears to have the most serious consequences. I think because we are refusing God's rest and so it robs us of life.

And it becomes more clear to me, for the first time, like God wrote it out for me on the chalkboard of a classroom: To rest in God is simply to trust him. To live in unbelief is to live without that rest. It makes so much sense, going back to that thought several days ago, that the hardest daily work I have is to wake up and trust him. It's the only thing he really asks of me. And he asks it because he knows it's the way for me to live fully, to live in that place of peace and rest.

The tears begin to fall, because when you're thirsty and not every day of reading this mystical, beautiful, mysterious collection of books is a day of revelation - in fact, very few seem to be - it is like water to the seeker and it is wonder. And I take the cup offered and drink it in, and thank God, that once more he would show me something about himself.

Monday, September 12, 2011

A happy triathlon

At the start of my triathlon, I have no idea what to expect. People asked me throughout the week, "Have you trained?" and I pause to consider my answer. "No, not really." I mean, I run and I dance and I ride my bike a little bit and I've gone swimming three times this summer, but I'm not sure those really count as training for a triathlon. My biggest concern, besides the swarms of bodies in the water that I'm supposed to swim in between and not get smacked, is that I'll not enjoy the experience because I'm too focused on being competitive.

I've always possessed a streak of the competitive in my nature. I remember competing in games with the boys on the playground in grade school, and as I grew older, not wanting to be outdone by a boy in any sport or adventure - like jumping off bridges and things like that. I always had at least one girlfriend who was a little better than me at sports and one that was right about the same level as me, and it was always challenging to not compare my performance with theirs. Even now, when I go for runs, I hate being passed. If I hear footsteps behind me, even if I'm tired and hurting, I'll still speed up. It's my dang pride.

But mostly, I'm competitive with myself. I have this internal idea of what I can and can't do that may or may not be accurate when it comes to athletics, but it usually borders on the level of confidence. Competing in cross country and track seemed to hard-wire me for racing. I can't seem to de-program myself from this. In my book, there is no such thing as a "fun run" when friends ask me to sign up with them for a 5k. I know I'll just end up racing it.

So the race begins and I plunge into the water, and feet and arms are flailing and my head's above water, paddling for at least 50 meters before I can even begin to freestyle. I have a hard time catching my breath at first. My heart is racing with adrenaline and so my breathing is excited and there's all this water splashing in my face. I focus my thoughts and recite my mantra for this whole experience: Enjoy the moment, Amber. I don't want to grit my teeth and power through this without the wonder.

And let me tell you, it's a wonder I can do this triathlon. A year ago, I couldn't. I've been a runner since I was a sophomore in high school, but my knees decided almost two years ago that they didn't want to run anymore. I wasn't sure I'd ever be able to do a triathlon. But a couple of months ago, I tested the streets again. I went for a run, and my knees didn't protest much at all. So I tried it again a week later. Still felt ok. My knees are quite creaky and cracky and I don't feel untouchable anymore, but I can do it. Now I'm up to about two runs a week, and each time I'm outside running, I smile and thank God that I can have this run. Today. Because I might not have it tomorrow and I know he doesn't owe it to me.

So I grin and thank God through this whole race. I thank him, too, for helping me complete my 16-mile bike ride without taking a spill, because that's a miracle all in itself. I marvel at all the older people in amazing shape and the ones that could barely run who are out competing. I feel admiration for the women who are at least twice my size doing what so many people say they can't do. I congratulate the ones who pass me by and encourage the ones that I pass by. We're in this, together, I think. And it feels so much, I don't know, nicer, than competing against them.

I'm nearing the finish line, and I've passed people my entire run, but now I see two little girls ahead. Maybe eleven years old. I feel humbled that I just now am passing them, crazy kids, but I tell them they're amazing as I come close. The last kick of the race, it's like I'm back at a cross country meet, and I switch into sprint mode and feel like I'm going to hurl. But the greatest thing is Ricardo's face as I cross the line. He's so proud, and he hugs me and tells me he's proud and that I'm crazy. And I think, it doesn't get much better than this.