"The creative act began
with God creating the universe in which we live.
The next creative act begins
when we allow God to re-create the universe within us."
Erwin McManus, The artisan soul
I began the headlong plunge into midlife crisis at the ripe old age of twenty-seven. Literally on the cusp of finishing two years of intensive graduate work and training - weeks away from launching out into the nitty-gritty pursuit of fleshing out the dreams I'd worn myself into the ground for - my dad died unexpectedly. And with him, the framework of my life and all I'd become to that point, fell with a deafening roar.
I remember, some time after, writing at a coffee shop near work when an old customer walked in. A man with whom I'd resonated in our fairly brief interactions, drawn to the depth of knowing in his eyes. He'd walked through pain. I invited him to sit down with me and, in the course of our conversation, he shared words that haunt me still. Somewhere in the midst of walking through the darkness of his own midlife crisis, a number of years older than mine, he'd commissioned an artist to do a painting for him.
"Paint me a picture of the moment in a man's life when he realizes all his young man dreams will not come true."
He described the painting to me in heart-wrenching detail. The man cradling his face in his hands, red dominating the canvas. But it's the words I've never forgotten.
I was already living into that moment. And I lived into that moment another five or six years years before it truly sunk in: losing some of those younger woman dreams, in some way, saved my life.
* * * * *
Prior to losing my dad, the reference point of the most transformative season of my life, I was a bit of a mystery to even my closest friends. I lived with all my guts securely locked up and only occasionally, with painstaking self-control and intention, made them visible to a very few. I'd mastered what I later came to call the "illusion of vulnerability." I knew how to say as little as possible, enough to appear I was being revealing, to make the other person feel I'd bared my soul. I never, and I mean never, broke down and cried in front of anyone, unless it fell under the category of Worship or God Moments. Those were safe, because they were really spiritual and not about my humanity (or so I compartmentalized it).
But there came a moment, in the ICU, staring at my comatose Papa hooked up to a respirator, when I could no longer outrun emotion. I didn't have enough fingers, any more, to reach and plug all the cracks that threatened to leak all my insides in a mighty, terrifying flood. And for the first time, I didn't fight it. For the first time, I began to allow people to witness my anguish, unedited.
I gave them a peek into my brokenness.
And therein began this long, beautiful journey to authenticity and wholeness. To becoming fully human.
* * * * *
Whenever I come across someone I haven't seen in awhile, someone who used to know me and doesn't anymore or never knew me at all, I can imagine what crosses their minds in our brief catch-up conversations about life. I went from someone with admirable, active life pursuits to someone who seems, by cultural standards, to be going nowhere. From top of the class in grad school to over six years at Starbucks and no ambition to work in my field of study. From passionate-worship-leader-Jesus-lover to happy-church-drop-out (still Jesus-lover, of a different sort).
I went from outward momentum to inward momentum. From performing to being. From striving to resting.
It's no wonder I cringe at the thought of attending reunions of any kind. Few people have a grid for the types of conversations where the stuff of a life is more about how we're coming into the fullness of who we are instead of the outward manifestations of identity: career success, marital happiness, children, houses, vacations, positions of leadership or church-sanctioned ministry, physical achievements. I'm still figuring out how to explain to most people that the things that make my life eventful, or not, are the things happening below the surface. The things that feel too sacred to bring into casual conversation, too vulnerable to share with anyone who doesn't really want to know your heart.
How do I explain to anyone who simply hasn't been there that the apparent lack of movement in my life belies far more seismic movement in my inner life, in my soul? That my priorities, beliefs, faith, relationships, identity - my universe within - are being utterly re-created. That the work I am putting my hands and heart to is the work of living my entire life artfully, wholeheartedly, and cannot be reduced to what I do for a paycheck.
I am almost unrecognizable from that twenty-seven year old that finally crumbled in the ICU room nearly seven years ago. And thank God, honestly.
I have so little to "show" for my life in tangible terminology, according to what our society values and deems worthy. But year by year, the crevices of my soul are being excavated. Year after year of doing the painful work of pressing into the rough edges of suffering and coming more fully alive; of learning to trust the Master Artist who carves beautiful valleys out of utter collapse; of discarding anything about me that is false and saying yes to those places of truth; of heading straight into the fear and finding this is where courage resides; who I am is beginning to emerge, and you know what? I love her. I don't always love her well, but I am growing to love her more.
Because I don't know how to quantify her life, but I know that she is the real deal.