Friday, December 18, 2009

Christmas: A Fresh Celebration

I've always loved the Christmas season a bit more than most folk. This is not news. Most of my friends know that I bust out the Carpenters "Christmas Portrait" album sometime in September and that I cry on December 26th, every single year. I've been known to celebrate Christmas in July, just to get through the year until the "real" Christmas season comes back around. I wear vanilla perfume all year long because, frankly, I enjoy smelling like a big ol' Christmas cookie.

I've always assumed my giddiness over the yuletide (and just what is a yuletide, anyway? Someone enlighten me?) had to do with my December 24th birthday. But this year -- this year, more than any other year -- I can attest to another reason entirely. It has to do with a birthday celebration, yes -- but certainly not my own.

I've been following Jesus since I was fifteen years old. In churchy speak, I've been "walking with the Lord" or "serving Christ" or "living the life." In truth, for about sixteen years or so, I was going through the motions to a certain extent. We all do it; it's easy to fall into a comfy little nest of complacency after many years of living the Christian life. There's a cooling off process that happens if we're not especially diligent about fanning the flames of our passion. For me, it happened gradually, for reasons that felt out of my control. A divorce. A financial crunch. A sales career that kept me spinning my wheels at the office every Sunday (oops; there went the Sabbath) for years. Oh, I still loved Jesus. Passionately, even, at times. I worshiped in my car, at the piano, on the rare instance when life rocked my boat enough to bring me to my knees in search of the holy intimacy I once enjoyed. But there was little forward motion, little momentum.

God's fault? Not quite. Ever taken a long, hot bath, and gotten absorbed by a book as you lay in the tub? By the time you're twenty pages into the plot, distracted by the drama of the story, you're sitting in lukewarm water. And you never even noticed the temp was dropping.

I got lazy. My passionate heart for Christ -- the same heart that burned to know Him more fully at the age of fifteen -- cooled off a bit. No one would have known it; I still looked the part. I still prayed for others and talked about my faith and I even read a challenging Christian Living book once in a while. I went to Bible study. I did my homework. I regurgitated spiritual-sounding answers that sometimes inspired other ladies in my group, so I must have been "walking the walk" -- right? Christmas remained my favorite season for all those lukewarm years, and I wrote dramas that moved people at Christmas time, so I must have been "living the life" -- right?

Not so much. I stopped pursuing God. I stopped chasing after Him with the urgency I once had. I prayed faithfully, but not expectantly. My convictions slipped a little. The world began to feel more and more like home, and Heaven began to feel more like a distant dream and less like the place where my citizenship rests. But I didn't much notice. Metaphorically speaking, I was sitting in a lukewarm bathtub, engrossed in the drama of the story going on around me, more so than in the story going on within me.

In the past year and a half or so, God has been draining my lukewarm tub. I sat shivering for a while, wondering why He was being so mean. Why He seemed to be so mad at me. Why I couldn't get comfortable anymore.

I had a little temper tantrum. I pulled out all my old coping mechanisms, and abused them blatantly in the sight of God, daring Him to do anything about it.

He responded with mercy. Unbelievable.

I have learned more about God in the past eighteen months than I had ever known about Him before. I've gotten to know more of His character. I've seen more of His heart. I've understood more of His word, and -- get this -- how it applies to me. To me! Me, who blames God when her life falls apart. Me, who stops pursuing God even as He so relentlessly pursues me. Me, who had lost sight of the real reason why Christmas makes her so giddy.

It's because of Jesus, kids. He's the reason for the joy in my heart at Christmas -- because He's the reason for the joy in my heart, period. And this year, knowing His heart a bit better than before (He is "slow to anger, and abounding in love" . . . He is "everlasting" . . . He is the One who "sticks closer than a brother" . . . He is the One whose "grace is sufficient for me" and whose "strength is made perfect in my weakness"), my celebration feels more joyful than ever.

Christmas carols have deeper meaning. "O come let us adore Him"? You'd better believe it. "Long lay the world in sin and error pining / Till He appeared and the soul felt its worth"? My thoughts exactly. "Radiant beams from Thy holy face / With the dawn of redeeming grace"? Redeeming grace, indeed. No wonder I'm giddy.

I'm celebrating afresh this year. Nothin' lukewarm about it. No "holiday tree" for this ol' girl -- bring on the CHRISTMAS. I'm celebrating the birth of my savior -- Emmanuel, "God with us." And it does my heart so much good, next year I just might start in August.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

What I've Learned in 2009 . . .

Jeans are neither my enemy nor my friend. Jeans are not meant to change my body shape, minimize my butt, or make me taller. Their sole purpose on earth is to prevent nakedness from the waist down. Period.

Perhaps the reason so many of my friends are turned off by church is because church people have done a crummy job of representing a holy God to a hurting world. And perhaps my new year’s resolution should have more to do with remedying that than with eating less carbs.

Fact: Sometimes mediocre writers get published. Fact #2: Sometimes amazingly talented writers remain overlooked by the publishing world. Fact #3: both of these things kinda stink.

It is perfectly acceptable to be 33 years old and single. Heck, it’s even okay to be 33 years old and be happy with being single. It’s also acceptable to completely change one’s mind about that, and I will be sure to keep you posted.

Drama is conflict, and conflict is necessary to good storytelling. And, as much as I have lived my life to avoid conflict at all costs, being a writer will eventually force me to embrace it.

God is more than able to open doors that no man can open, and He delights in using the foolish things (and people) of the world to humble the wise.

No matter how much of a grammar and punctuation rock star you think you are, a good editor will show you the error of your ways.

Harboring unforgiveness is like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die.

Kids hear and absorb everything their parents do and say. Everything.

I talk too much. I need to do something about that. I’m sure there’s a reason why God gave us all two ears and only one mouth.

Noodles must be added to homemade chicken noodle soup last.

None of us have it all together. Especially not the people who look as though they do.

People who say they don’t care what people think about them are usually desperate to have other people think they don’t care what people think about them.

When you write a memoir, always change first names to protect the innocent. Because, chances are, by the time your book is released, you will have come back into contact with every single person whom you wrote about. (Thanks, Facebook!)

Some cats like veggie burgers, celery, soy milk, and coffee. (Or, at least one does. )

For as long as Liberty is alive and living in my home, I will never again be allowed to lay on my right side. She is a left-sided cat. Period.

Imitrex doesn’t work for my headaches. Zomig doesn’t work for my headaches. Advil Migraine no longer works for my headaches. Five Hour Energy works like magic for my headaches. Live and learn.

Even if your friend has been dead for five years, you will still have moments where you completely forget this and you’ll reach for your phone to call her when a certain song comes on over the speakers in Applebee’s.

Sometimes words are overrated. It’s impossible to say the wrong thing when you simply hug someone instead of saying anything at all.

There is no joy equal to the feeling of taking someone by the hand and walking them toward Jesus. Evangelism doesn’t mean what I thought it meant. It means doing life the way Jesus did it, with boldness, tenderness, and authenticity, and presenting the truth in love. The “ministry of reconciliation” is for every believer, even those of us who have been scared to death of it.

I do not like beer, dark chocolate, or bleu cheese – and I probably never will.

I will probably never again be a coloratura soprano or a size one. And I’ll just have to deal.

Sometimes kindness shocks the heck outta people. We’ve learned not to expect it. Kindness goes further (farther? Ack!) now than it ever did, because it so obviously sets us apart from a hostile society.

And probably the MOST important thing I have learned in 2009: I still have a lot to learn.

(To be continued . . . )

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Words Are Overrated

As a writer, I love words. I like to play with them, using words as colors and textures upon the blank canvas of a page. I like the weight of words, the way they echo in the mind after they've registered. Words are powerful. Words are irretractable. "Words kill, words give life; they're either poison or fruit -- you choose." (Proverbs 18:21, MSG) We need to handle words with care, mindful of their power both to wound and to heal.

And sometimes, we need to shut up and forego them completely.

We've all had them -- those electric moments shared with another human being, where words suddenly seem so glaringly inefficient. Sometimes it's a knowing glance across a crowded room, sometimes it's a tearful embrace inside the viewing room of a funeral home. There are those moments, whatever their setting or circumstance, that are simply better for their silence.

I shared a moment with a friend today, wherein I knew I was part of something bigger than words. It was one of those times where tears spoke volumes and a good tight hug, the kind that lasts a while, was the only appropriate way to truly respond in love.

It seems to me that brokenness begets brokenness. In the face of one who is brave enough to remove her mask and break down in a sincere expression of human fragility, we become aware of our inability to say the right thing. We admit to ourselves that we are not clever, eloquent or wise. Humility comes upon us as we recognize ourselves in that broken person, and we realize that perhaps the best way to love them in that moment is not to mentor them but to meet them, right where they are -- to come alongside them and sit with them in brokenness.

I guess I'm learning. As much as I love words, I admit that they are often overrated. Because today, as I sat with my friend in her brokenness, I found I had no need for them at all.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Bad Day / Good Lesson

I am, for the most part, an optimist. Call it innocence, call it a Pollyanna attitude, heck, call it naivete -- but I am, generally speaking, a glass-half-full type of gal. Usually.

Not today. I had a bad day. They can't all be winners; I'm human, after all. I get grumpy and mopey and tempted to set my Facebook status to: "Jena hath the blueth." Today was one of those days.

It was stupid, really. I saw some images of myself that I thought were awful, and I was too lazy to get a handle on my self-talk and the whole thing quickly spiraled into a lively little internal rendition of "Nobody likes me, everybody hates me, guess I'll go eat worms." I think the whole process took about forty seconds or so, and THUD -- just like that, my spirits hit the floor. Fickle, these silly human-being emotions of ours. One minute, we're humming; the next minute, we have the blueth.

The thing that was frustrating about the whole deal was that this is so not new to me. I've been down this road before, and pulling myself out of these such potholes "should" be a snap by now. So, take the depression and self-pity and then pile a little guilt on top, and you have a recipe for a pretty bleak day.

UNLESS . . .

Unless you take isolation out of the mix. Which, because God is merciful, I was able (or forced?) to do. As God would have it today, I ended up in a discussion with a dear friend of mine, a friend whom I recently had the privilege of taking by the hand and walking toward Christ. And today this friend -- this friend who is now a sister (insert chills here) -- happened to be in the right place at the right time, and I confided in her, from the trenches. I was real. I told her what was up, what the struggle was, how silly I felt about the whole thing. And she responded in the most beautiful way I could have imagined.

She fed me the word of God.

She with whom I spent those hours several months ago, encouraging her with scripture, did me the ultimate favor of reminding me of those very transforming, life-giving truths. She searched her Bible and sought out wisdom for me, applicable to the battle I was fighting between my ears. And she did a darn good job of it.

And gradually, assuredly, my perspective was renewed. There is something very cool about the reciprocity of it all -- the counselee becoming the counselor during a time of need, the people-needing-people, the word picture of iron-sharpening-iron (Proverbs 17:17). This beautiful design of reciprocity and inter-dependance reminds me that we're all in this together, that ain't none of us got it all figured out.

If all's well that ends well, my bad day isn't turning out so bad after all. Because as I go to bed tonight, my heavy heart is lighter and I'm no longer singing myself glum lullabies about eating worms. Rather, I am singing about the amazing, gigantic God who sees into our hearts and knows just what we need, and about the very cool talent He has for placing just the right people in our path.

Nope. I don't have it all figured out. But I know the One who does.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Seeing Myself in the RAW

We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words; we're visual learners, us human beings, and we like images. We like color and detail and brightness and contrast.


Last week, I had a two-hour photo shoot for a book I've written. This was a completely new experience for me; never have I "played" for hours in front of an assembly of photographic equipment and smiled for over 400 photos. (That's a lot of "say cheese!") Once I got over my insecurity, it was pretty fun, really. I felt like a magazine model, and I may or may not have created a little fantasy in my head about having to hurry up and get this cover shoot done before hopping the next plane to Milan for Fashion Week.

My photographer, Peter, made it easy enough to smile for the camera, as he is also a Broadway actor who can do an uncanny impression of Christopher Walken, which made me laugh until I spit and snorted. (We didn't use those shots.)

We were several frames into the shoot before he turned his camera around to show me an image on the LCD screen. "I mean, look at that," he said, kissing the tips of his fingers. "Is that gorgeous, or what?" I took a step forward, leaned over, and looked at the little screen. And silently gasped.

For lack of a gentler term, I looked. . . old. I couldn't understand it; I had just had my photo taken the day before, with my friend's digital camera, and I hadn't looked old. What had happened to me in twenty-four hours?

Peter later explained to me that when a professional photographer takes a picture of his subject, the camera takes in every aspect of the person -- every bit of visual information -- and presents the image completely unprocessed, in "RAW" format. The image is then processed and retouched later; shadows are adjusted, color and skin tone are corrected, etc. Evidently, our modern-day digital cameras do this automatically, which is why the images we see of ourselves on them are kinder and gentler than the one I was seeing on Peter's camera screen.

I thought about this throughout the evening, each time Peter showed me a proof and kissed his fingertips and said "Stunning!" or "Lovely!" or "Gorge!" I wondered how he could say such things, with my undereye circles and crow's feet and laugh lines so naked and exposed on his LCD screen. I figured either he was being extremely kind or he was rather full-of-it.

And then it hit me: he was already "seeing" the finished product in his mind's eye. He wasn't seeing the flaws on the screen; after hundreds of photo sessions, he had learned to see the images not for what they were, but for what they would be when he was finished with them.

The allegory wasn't lost on me. I realized then that this is how God sees us. He looks at us and sees all -- the flaws, the imperfections, the problem areas -- and yet He is able to look beyond what is to what will be. He peers into our hearts, and nothing is hidden from Him. Almighty God is always able to see us in "RAW" format -- like it or not. But His vision isn't limited to that. Just as Peter saw beauty in my raw photos, envisioning what they would be once he was done working on them, God sees beauty in us, despite our weaknesses and blemishes. He sees what we will be when He is done working on us.

I imagine that Peter's work is endlessly easier than God's, since photos don't fight the process like people do. Peter's work on my raw photos probably took a couple of hours. God's work on my raw heart is taking considerably longer to complete. I am grateful that God doesn't charge by the hour.

All in all, it was a humbling experience, even after my little Milan fantasy. If you have an opportunity to see yourself in the "RAW", I encourage you to be a visionary and cut yourself some slack. . .

God isn't finished with you, either.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Gratitude is Beautiful

I'm standing in line at the pharmacy, waiting for some drugs, and I glance to my left. There she is. Perfect Woman. I know her at first sight. It's the hair that gives her away -- the waterfall of perfect blonde spiral curls, swishing and swooshing this way and that when she moves her head to look in my direction. I smile at her. I know what she's thinking: "Poor thing. Look at that lifeless, straight hair. I really should count my blessings."

Okay, maybe not. For all I know, maybe she was thinking about the horrible illness that had brought her to the pharmacy in the first place. Maybe she was thinking about an argument she had with her husband or the balance in her checking account or the chicken she needed to defrost for dinner. But I was certain that she wasn't thinking what she should have been thinking: "Thank you, God, for giving me the most gorgeous hair ever."

I came back home from the pharmacy and I tweeted about running into Perfect Woman standing there in line. And within minutes, my friend Wanda who has just finished her final round of chemotherapy and is awaiting the re-growth of her own hair, made a comment about my ugly jealousy: "I'm jealous of a Chia Pet!" Yikes. Good point, there, Wanda. My perspective is duly renewed.

I'm learning, you see. Learning to be grateful for what I have (including my boring, straight blonde hair) as well as what I don't have (including cancer). Gratitude, as it turns out, is quite attractive in a person. I even dare say that gratitude is beautiful.

So, back on the wagon I go. And tomorrow morning when I blow-dry my head of ho-hum hair, I'll think of Perfect Woman and I might feel a tiny twinge of envy (maybe a bit like a knife, twisting between the ribs), but then hopefully, I'll remember to thank God for His amazing love and mercy toward me. And I'll be grateful. And gratitude is beautiful.

I wonder if the people standing beside me in line at the pharmacy will notice.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Nothing to Hide Behind

You've had this nightmare, I know you have: You walk into an office meeting (or your study hall room, depending on your life stage), sit down, and smile. You glance around the room from face to horrified face, and suddenly gasp as it occurs to you that you've forgotten your clothing and have arrived naked. Utterly, completely, birthday-suit naked.

Usually, this is when you awaken in a cold sweat and begin mentally conducting your heart back into its normal rhythm: ONE two three four, ONE two three four... (Or, if you don't awaken, this could also be the part of the dream when the phone in your hand turns into a banana and you peel it and feed it to your boss who is now a monkey sitting in the office chair beside you and is wearing lipstick and clapping along to "We Are the Champions." But, usually, it's the former.)

I'm sure some people like being naked in front of a crowd, and some of them make darn good money performing on the VMA awards. But for most of us, it's a horrifying prospect. It is, in fact, one of the most popular reasons for wearing clothes. But there are different kinds of 'naked', of course. There is the physical, literal sense of nakedness, as we so courageously imagined in the previous paragraphs, but there is also the sense of nakedness that comes from sharing our hearts, speaking our truth, and letting down our guard (and sometimes our hair). It is that vulnerability, that sense of being so very exposed, that can be not only horrifying but healing as well.

I've written a memoir, which is old news to some who will read this. It has a release date of May 1st, 2010, and I am only now becoming aware of how my life will change after that date on my timeline. If it accomplishes what memoirs are intended to accomplish, it will let people -- strangers, mostly -- into parts of my private world, my theretofore-private past, and even a few of my private thoughts. How's that for feeling naked in front of the world?

And it's okay. I'm cool with it. Go figure. I, who brings a sweatshirt with me everywhere I go so I can drape it over my legs whenever I sit down and thereby have something to hide behind, am cool with it. I who make a beeline for my towel the very nano-second I get out of the pool lest anyone see me, for Pete's sake, am cool with this. I actually think I can suck it up, for the glory of God, and deal.

Why? Because I seem to be discovering that only when I become vulnerable do I become truly effective as an encourager. Life is one big show-and-tell, but showing is ever more effective than telling alone.

When my kid was struggling to form his letters correctly in kindergarten, I told him about how I struggled with dyslexia when I was little, and I showed him one of my old papers from school. And I watched his face as he stared at my backward letters a minute, possibly thinking, "Huh. She can write now..."

I distinctly remember the day when the shame of being a divorced Christian woman left me. I read an article written by someone whose situation had been similar to mine. She shared her heart and her story in those 350 words, and suddenly I wasn't alone. It was like my self-affixed scarlet letter peeled off of my chest and fell to the floor. And I thought, "Huh. She's okay now..."

No one likes the idea of becoming vulnerable, at least not at first. But as I prepare myself to stand before friends and strangers alike, with nothing to hide behind, I get a little excited at the thought of how God might choose to use my vulnerability to reach people. I might even have to learn to leave my sweatshirt at home.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Stress Will Make You Ugly

Stress is a killer. Stress will make you do stupid things, say even stupider things, make lousy decisions, and lose sleep. But did you know it will also make you ugly?

Now that I have your attention, listen up.

Last week, I noticed a weird lump behind my ear, that hurt like heck. So I ignored it, because that's what I do when things bother me. The next day, I awakened to three more weird painful lumps, which made turning my head and swallowing quite difficult. So I ignored it, because surely it was nothing and I was being a big baby. (Are we seeing a pattern yet?) Finally, my friend Anne noticed that my hand kept flying up to my neck and my head while we were talking to one another, and asked me what the heck was wrong with me. And I, of course, was taken aback -- because nothing was wrong with me. Nothing is ever wrong with me. Ever.

Are you ready to smack me yet? Me, too, in retrospect.

So, because my friends love me and freak out on me when I refuse to be sensible and take care of myself, Anne had her daughter Christi, a physician assistant, look me over. Christi felt around on my neck and said "yikes" a few times, and then looked at the huge bug-bite on my temple and made a funny face and suggested that I might want to call my doc the next day.

When I walked into my doc's office the next morning, she had me hop up on her table and she laughed a litte under her breath as she slipped into a pair of rubber gloves. "Nice bedside manner," I quipped at the internist who feels like an old friend. "Do you laugh at all your patients?"

She shook her head and went straight to poking around on my oozing bug-bite thing. "Only you, Jena girl... So, you been a little stressed-out lately, huh?"

"Who says?" I asked quickly, wheels turning in my head as to who could have been talking to her. (Oh yeah... did I mention that stress can also lead to paranoia?)

"Your body, that's who says!" she poked around a bit more, then threw the gloves into a bin and felt my lumpy neck with her warm play-doh hands. "Nice... very nice..."


"Your lymph nodes are like golfballs."

"I know," I said. "Gross, huh?"

"Yeah," she agreed. "Super gross. You have Herpes."


"Herpes Zoster," she said, "Not simplex. It's different. What's all the stress about?"

"There's a connection?" I asked, still reeling at the word 'herpes.'

"Ohhhh, yeah," the doc said. "Your immune system is shot. Stress will do that to you."

I hung my head, feeling like a little bit of a dork. And a tad guilty, too. How, after thirty-two years on the planet, have I not learned by now to better manage stress? Or to at least admit to myself that I'm not above its influence? And when, oh when, will I learn to tell myself the truth once in a while, instead of ignoring my every need like some sort of stubborn martyr?

Herpes Zoster is Shingles, by the way -- a viral infection of the nerve endings. I have a head of scaly, stinging red lesions and nerves that feel like they're being tased with stun guns. It's Day Six now, and I am starting to look a lot better, but I was downright homely for a while there. Which brings us back to my thesis: Stress can make you ugly.

So chill when you can, kids. Don't sweat the small stuff. Try not to freak out... and if you do, at least admit it to yourself, so you can try to change. As for me, now that I've allowed stress to make me ugly (temporarily, I hope), I think I'll try a little harder to listen to the words of the master: "Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don't get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes." (Matthew 6:34, MSG)

I'll just have to consider it part of my beauty regimen.

Friday, August 21, 2009

The Day the Cuteness Died

Little kids know they're cute, and it doesn't take long for them to really get a handle on the sort of power with which their innate cuteness imbues them. Most kids know how to use the puppy dog eyes and the crocodile tears to their advantage, and many have a favorite aunt or uncle or friend-of-a-parent wrapped tightly and mercilessly around their tiny little finger. Cuteness is some powerful stuff.

Until it wears off.

My aunt Kathie, known to me as "Aunt Kas", used to adore me. She noogied me and hugged me and kissed me, and just generally ate me alive whenever we went to her house for the holidays. The routine was always the same; I'd run ahead of my mom to ring the doorbell next to the big French doors of her home, and I'd listen to Kelly the Collie barking and the sound of footsteps growing closer. Then, Aunt Kas would swing open the door and make an exaggeratedly surprised and delighted face, as if she hadn't known I was coming, and scoop me up into her arms as she exclaimed, always, "It's Jena Jo!"

That went on for about five or six years. For five or six years, on some level, I thought I was really something. I never thought I was particularly cute -- I had a goofy eye that wandered when I was tired and made me see double, and funky reddish hair that never seemed to stay neatly braided, and a perfectly normal little-kid body that always seemed, to me, a bit too round in the belly and butt -- but Aunt Kas did, and for those five or six years, I rather enjoyed it.

Then something snapped. I don't know what it was -- I don't recall growing a hump on my back or a third eye or breaking out in a contagious rash -- but after age six, the cuteness must have worn off. I distinctly remember the Christmas Eve when it happened. I stood there, at her big French doors, waiting to be swept off of my Mary Janes and called adorable. Instead, Aunt Kas opened the door, smiled a little, squeezed my shoulder with one hand and said, "Hi, Jen." That was it. That was all I got. I had lost my touch. The glamor of the Cute Life was gone, and I was just a six-year-old kid with a wandering eye and messy braids. Ho hum.

This sort of thing still happens to adults, unfortunately. Human beings have rather short attention spans, and it seems we fall in and out of attractions with the shifting of the breeze. Just this week, I read a friend's post about her boyfriend of three years who had decided she just didn't do it for him anymore. She just wasn't enough. Her appeal had worn off, as far as he was concerned. I have several friends whose spouses decided, after many years, that they wanted a change -- they had a taste for a different flavor, so to speak.

Ouch. No one like rejection -- neither the insecure six-year-old or the middle-aged exec who seems to live above the threshold of emotional fragility. We want to know that we are loved. Wanted. Desired. Adored. Appreciated. Valued. Cherished. And we want to know that our status as such is not subject to change. Unfortunately, few things in this life offer that sort of insurance policy.

"I'm absolutely convinced that nothing—nothing living or dead, angelic or demonic, today or tomorrow, high or low, thinkable or unthinkable—absolutely nothing can get between us and God's love..." (Romans 8:39, The Message)

There we go. There's something stable, something changeless and solid and unshakable. There's a love that isn't contingent upon my cuteness. I can't make myself endearing enough to earn it, and I can't become so ugly as to lose it. It is what it is, because God is who He is. Period.

Had I known this love when I was six years old, it might not have rocked my world so much when I outgrew my cuteness and lost the power I thought it had given me. And if you know it now, maybe you can rest in this same assurance: You are loved... and your status as the beloved is not subject to change.

Monday, August 17, 2009

We're All In This Together

At my church, whenever we have a baby or child dedication ceremony, we have made it our practice to say to the parents, as a congregation, "We promise to withhold any and all judgment of this child and his parents while he is being raised." That part always puts a little lump in my throat, to be honest.

As a single parent, I tend to be a little hard on myself, a little overly self-criticial of my mommy skills (and general competency). As a mom, I'm so far from perfect that I often feel guilty even wearing the title of 'mother.' My kid, likewise, is not a perfect kid. Fortunately, though, I've yet to meet a perfect child, and this brings me a little comfort.

He's a good kid -- mostly kind, definitely tender-hearted, smart and quick and precocious and funny as all get-out. He can also be mouthy, selfish, bullheaded, stubborn and strong-willed. (I know those last three basically mean the same thing, but if you'd ever met Jaden, you would know that he deserves all three adjectives). It seems the proverbial apple indeed does not fall far from the tree.

There is no one on this earth I love more than my child. There is also no one on this earth who so regularly and effectively threatens to compromise my sanity. And I don't always handle myself like an adult, quite frankly.

Last Friday, for example, is a day that will go down in history as one of my less-stellar mommy moments -- one of the rare occasions when my child screamed at me and I, the rational superior adult with the advantage of a more evolved and developed handle on impulse control, chose to just scream right back at him. It was not a moment I wanted any of you to know about, honestly.

And yet here I am writing about it. Why? Because I think we need to be real with one another about how hard this parenting gig really is. None of us have it all together. Not even those friends of mine whom I always tell myself are much better parents than I am.

Here's the cold, hard fact: kids are human beings. Kids have rules to follow (or, at least, they should; they need them, and secretly want them on some level). Kids can make choices. If we are doing our jobs as parents, the choices will have consequences, whether positive or negative, and we will let those consequences befall them. Kids have free will, from day one. And that means they will embarrass us at some point. And they will push our buttons. And they might even wear us down so far that we scream, even those of us who are self-declared "scream-free parents."

It hasn't happened to me often, but it has happened. And it might have even happened to you. And now that I've admitted it, you can, too. Even if only to yourself.

Look, parenting is hard. So let's choose to withhold judgment of one another and of one another's children. Let's do what we can to encourage one another and keep it real. We're all in this together.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Tattling... in Jesus' Name

You know how it is when you have someone in your life who weighs heavy on your heart, whose face pops up on the post-it note of your brain whenever you stop to pray, your concern for whom can keep you up late at night? You know how it is when you have several someones in that same category? Yeah, me too.

So, late last night, I go to God, like usual, and I start blabbing about my friends. I tell Him everything He may be missing as He observes them from His lifeguard chair. I tell Him about their behaviors, their slip-ups, their desperate need for Him. I ask Him to please intervene, step up, DO something, for Pete's sake... um, in Jesus' name, of course.

I'm halfway through my spiritual rant, working up some good momentum, starting to "feel" like I'm really interceding in love, really making a difference, really getting through. God's gonna come through; He's gonna be on top of things now. Good thing I prayed. Right?

And then, almost audibly, I hear: "Shhhhhhhhhh."

Excuse me? I start in again. "Anyway, God, would you please get a hold of so-and-so, grab them by the heart and--"

Again: "Shhhhhhhhhhh."

What the... I'm praying here! I'm trying to be spiritual! And God is shushing me? But it was unmistakable. Every time I started in again to pray, I sensed it. It wasn't condemning (it never is, when it's really God)... in fact, it was reassuring. It was as if I could hear the spirit of God say, "I know, Jena. You're not telling me anything I don't already know. I've got this; I'm on it. You can sleep now."

I don't sense it when I am praying for someone's physical healing, as I have been for a pastor in our area. I don't sense it when I am praying for people who are being victimized or persecuted. I only sense it when I am tattling. It seems our parents were right; no one likes a tattletale. Not even God.

He knows what His kids are up to. That whole eyes-in-the-back-of-the-head thing, that we thought our mothers invented -- He's got that down. He sees all; nothing gets past Him. Nothing is beyond Him. No one hides from Him -- no one. (Sigh... not even me.)

So if you have those people in your life, weighing heavy on your heart, maybe you can take some comfort in my tale of tattling. Maybe if you listen for it, you'll hear it too: "Shhhhhhhh. I know. Rest."

I guess we might as well.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

This Curious Condition of Motherhood

I am absolutely exhausted, and I promised several well-meaning friends that I would go to sleep, but sleep is not coming easily right now. And all because of the fifty-pound person beside me in my bed tonight.

My seven-year-old son, Jaden, has become quite sick over the past few days, and just today developed a few new symptoms of concern to me. A physician friend of mine was kind enough to perform a little impromptu examination a while ago, which -- I thought -- set my mind at ease. So, why am I not sleeping soundly? In a word, motherhood.

Motherhood seems to be the curious condition of feeling as though a part of your heart has broken off and is walking around outside your body. As this part of your heart grows and matures, it begins to need you less and less (and more and more, paradoxically, in some ways), and you have to learn the art of the gentle, gradual release, even though it goes against all that is screaming within your heart (the part of your heart that has remained inside your own body).

Before I was someone's mother, people spoke of it, this curious condition, and I thought that I understood. Yeah, I know, I thought... So it's a love like none other. Got it. But it's not a love that is understood in theory -- only in practice. And, frankly, it's a little scary to love this way... This irrationally, this unconditionally, this completely. To pick a rose you ask your hands to bleed... to love a child, you ask your heart, at times, to do the same.

It's just an infection, this thing my kid has. A nasty cough, a high fever, some very swollen glands. And yet this love I have for him is so fierce that it bares its Mama Bear claws at the very thought of a threat to his wellbeing. It's an odd feeling to be this invested, on a heart level, in a person. It's the hardest, most all-consuming, exhausting, wonderful thing you can imagine. It makes the heart both swell with joy and ache in pain, all at once sometimes. And I only have ONE kid.

So I look at him, lying here in a bed that is not his own, an arsenal of medicines on the table beside his suddenly small, fragile-looking little body... and I realize that I am helpless. I can only do so much to relieve him -- whether he is fighting an infection or fighting a bully... whether he is choosing a toy or choosing a major... whether he is hurting or choosing to inflict hurt. He is only mine in the sense that I am currently responsible for raising and nurturing him. When all is said and done, he is a human being, and human beings to do not belong to other human beings. They belong only to God.

So, in the hopes of getting a little sleep, I'm returning him tonight to His rightful owner. I am asking Him to have his way, to do His job, to give me to the grace to do mine... which, as Jaden's mom, is to give my best human effort to nurture, teach, train, inspire, guide, and protect. And, having done all of these things, after midnight, to entrust him to the One who can do everything else for him that I cannot.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Don't Drink the Poison!

Late last night, I enjoyed a 90-minute cyber-chat with a new friend. What started out with "hey / hey" soon became a moving, challenging, and very candid discussion on the touchy subject of forgiveness. I was excited to be able to share some of what God has been teaching me lately, through His word and through the wise counsel of others, and through Rick Warren's "40 Days of Love" study. The 90 minutes whizzed by, fingers flying across our keyboards as we dug deeper.

As I see it, here's the deal with forgiveness: as followers of Jesus, it's not so much an option, really. It's a non-negotiable, a mandate, a must-do... but it's also an invitation. When we are able to truly forgive others who have wronged us (and we have all been wronged, if we are alive on planet Earth), we enable ourselves to enter into peace -- God's peace. After all, when we harbor bitterness and unforgiveness toward another person, it is usually we who suffer, not the unforgiven. Holding onto unforgivess, so the saying goes, is like drinking poison -- and then waiting for the other person to die.

And furthermore, chosing to forgive a person does not let that person off the hook, as we may tend to assume. God is just; wrongdoing will be addressed, one way or another -- but it is HIS to address, not ours. When we forgive, we take the offender off of our "hook" and place them on God's "hook" where they belong. Let Him deal with them; He always does.

Now, this is where is can get tempting; we want to pray, "Git 'em, Lord! Sic 'em! Shatter their teeth upon the rocks!" (to borrow King David's request)... but we have to be prepared for God to have His way, whatever that may be. He may choose to bring about justice and give them a dose of "reality discpline" -- after all, vengeance belongs to the Lord. But... He may also choose to be merciful on them. Not what we want to hear, but it's always a real possibility. And honestly -- how many times has God chosen to be merciful toward us, when what we deserved was unyielding justice?

Anyway. It's a subject that could be discussed for hours, and I would probably enjoy such a discussion. Holding grudges seems to be an innate hangup for human beings; we can all relate. But there comes a time when we wise up and stop drinking the poison -- or, we die of it, one way or another.

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Beauty of Brokenness

I love Mosaics. I love to look at each tiny little piece of broken tile, and try to see it first as separate from the whole, as a fraction of the thing it once was. Did it used to have a life of its own, maybe as a vase or a plate, before it met its shattering fate and went on to become a vital component of a work of art? How did it break? Was it dropped, mishandled, intentionally destroyed for a larger purpose? I love that the pieces haven't been thrown away or wasted, but that the artist saw their remaining (or maybe enduring) value, and picked them up and said, "I can use you."

Mosaics are cool, because they are a neat little visual allegory of the way God works. Human beings, it seems, are even more prone to breaking than ceramic or clay. When I think of all the people who have most touched my life, whose words and deeds and legacies have helped to form and shape me, I am taken by the realization of something they all seem to have in common: they are, or were, decidedly imperfect, "broken on the wheels of living," as Brennan Manning has said. They are works in progress, turning their messes into messages and their tests into testimonies. Some of them are, indeed, a bit rough around the edges, and I suspect that their creator and mine is okay with that.

People who have been through a bit of fire, who have lived and learned, who have shed some lifeblood and come out the better for it, are effortlessly inspirational. They don't have to try too hard to be pithy or poignant or witty or wise, because the fact that they are still here speaks volumes before they ever have to say a word. They have a wide-eyed wonder at having endured, having been spared, that is contagious.

They are the recovered addicts, the tenderhearted former bullies, the learning-disabled scholars, the wounded healers. Their lives speak, encouraging others to press on, to trust in the restorative hand and heart of God.

I remember an early concert given by the late Rich Mullins, the well-known Christian songwriter, wherein he reached for his guitar to play an acoustic ballad, and as he began to play, he started laughing and admitted, "This guitar is terminally out of tune, but I tend to think things are boring if they're really fine." The audience chuckled, because part of the appeal of Rich was that he was, in fact, quite rough around the edges. He didn't stop to tune the guitar; he started the song over again, still with the same out-of-tune instrument.

I like his style; Rich could appreciate the brokenness in both people and things, because he himself was admittedly broken. And maybe he was right; maybe pristine equals dull, and flawed equals interesting. And if that's the case, if all of us who are flawed and imperfect are more interesting and valuable for our brokenness, then maybe we can learn to embrace our shattered lives as a new kind of creation, like a mosaic. Maybe we can learn to be just a little bit more grateful for where we are, in light of where we were. Maybe we can remember that in our weakness, God's strength is made perfect. And maybe, just maybe, broken will become the new beautiful.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

At Play in God's Creation

When you are a seven-year-old boy with pent-up energy, a wild imagination, and a desire to do nothing more than run, wrestle, and swim, summertime can be either a welcome release or a supreme frustration. For my little Jaden, unfortunately, thus far it has been the latter. No one is around. Country Squire has become a ghost town this summer, leaving Jaden alone to play with his legos for an hour in the morning and then to mope and whine for the remaining eight hours until his friends come home from day camp.

Yesterday, he was a fairly good sport all day, tagging along with me on errand after errand and rolling his eyes quietly while I sat at the computer and attempted to get a little work done under his watchful eye. Sensing his unreleased energy pulsating just under the surface, I kept checking in:

"Would you like to go for a quick bike ride?"
(Only if my friends can go.)
"Are you hungry?"
(No. I'm bored.)
"Want me to turn on the sprinkler?"
(Only if you'll play with me. Otherwise, it's boring.)
"Would you like a drink?"
(MOM. What I would LIKE is for you to PLAY with me.)

I feel for the kid; I really do. I can imagine what a drag it must be to hang out with a thirty-two-year-old woman on a shoestring budget, when all you really want to do is get muddy and poke other sticky-fingered short people with plastic swords. On our lengthy car trips to the bank, the store, the office, I brought along Jaden's portable DVD player, hoping to take his mind off of what a bummer his young life is at the moment (they're very dramatic, seven-year-olds). He wanted nothing to do with it. He also showed zero interest in his KidzBop CD's, his Happy Feet soundtrack, or, once we got back home, his online netherworlds of Webkinz and ClubPenguin.

Finally, around six o'clock, I caved. He had squeezed himself into the too-tight mold of a mini-adult all day, and enough was enough. I left my projects and tasks partially-finished, whipped up PBJ and carrots and called it dinner, and tossed the kid back in the car. We were off to have some FUN, dang it.

We wound up at Delwood Park, a cool nearby nature preserve with a scattering of bright, shiny new playground equipment all over the place. But, just as he had shunned my bright shiny offerings of DVD players and up-tempo kid-friendly pop music, Jaden shunned also these fancy-schmancy playgrounds, and instead asked me to drive all the way down to the end of the park property, and park the car by the creek. "Let's go this way, Mom," he said, blue-gray eyes alight as he gazed toward the moving water. Then, looking down at his feet to remind himself of what shoes he had chosen, he asked, "And can I get wet?" And I, the cool, selectively-permissive mom that I have become, replied, "I guess."

I rolled up my jeans and followed my little adventurer into the creek, up to the ankle, then the knee. The water was clear; I could see the bottom, and kept my gaze several paces ahead of where I knew Jaden's was, as he waded in, the chilly water reaching the bottom of his butt. We looked for snails and tadpoles, found a really gross dead fish, pretended to be on a reality show about a mother and son struggling to survive in the wilderness for months at a time. Jaden found a strand of gold plastic mardi gras beads in the water and tied them to his belt-loop; this was our "treasure", and he, in character, told me that when we finally made it out of the wilderness, he was going to sell it in order to buy us a houseboat so we could live on the creek.

Thirty minutes into our little make-believe adventure in the creek, nature called, and I watched a mischievous smirk came across Jaden's mud-smeared face. "Mom?" he asked, "Can I pee in the woods?" And I, as ever the cool, selectively-permissive mother, sighed deeply and said, "I guess."

We never did make it to any of the fancy-schmancy playgrounds. It was still somewhat light out just before nine o'clock when we made our way back to the car, my sandals sloshing and squirting and Jaden's orange shorts muddied beyond the point of no return. We were wet, chilly, and riddled with bug-bites galore, and we had to sit on sweatshirts and towels on the way home to keep from christening the car seats with creek water.

I hadn't spent a dime. There was no general admission ticket price to get in. None of the things we found to play with required batteries or access codes or password protection. We were simply at play in God's creation, and this was good, not-so-clean fun.

And as we pulled out of the park and headed back home, my kid, whose day had included ten hours of utter boredom and two and a half hours in paradise, said to me, "Mom, I loved this day."

Thursday, June 11, 2009

I'm Not Okay, You're Not Okay

So I'm having one of those nights, one of those annoying, itchy nights where I find myself being good and honest with myself, about myself. I hate when I do this; I am ever so comfortable when I can remain deceived. But tonight, I can't seem to shake this conviction about one of my silly little "issues." It seems I've worked myself into a tizzy over the years, and developed a nasty little habit: "Hi, I'm Jena, and I idealize people."

It's horrible, really. I tend to see people as being infallible, incapable of falling short or messing up or going wrong. I've done it with my pastor and his wife, who brought me back to my senses when they reminded me that they -- yes, even they! -- argue sometimes and don't always see eye-to-eye. I've done it with a friend of mine who I pretty much assumed had the perfect life -- great clothes, doting husband, way-cool job -- who then ruined my mirage by going all human on me. In fact, if you're reading this and we know one another, I might even do it with you. I probably wouldn't be too hard-pressed to come up with three bullet points and a poem to support my argument that you are cooler than I am, better informed, more together. You're welcome.

But, see, I'm not doing you any favors by perceiving you this way. In fact, on the contrary, I'm cheating you. You might need help or prayer or a shoulder, and I won't be sensitive enough to offer you any of the above, because I will be over here assuming that you've got it all together. Sorry about that.

So, off I go to sleep, under layers of blankets and the heavy weight of conviction. The great thing about tomorrow is that is generally follows today, and brings with it a chance to change for the better. So, the goal for tomorrow: get real. Look around and take note of the human condition of imperfection and neediness, and recognize that it seems to have stricken us all.

Good night, my fellow ragamuffins.

Friday, June 5, 2009


I recently heard Oprah say that life for a woman begins at fifty. (Of course, ten years ago she said the same thing about a woman turning forty... but whatever). Anyway, I think there may be some truth to that. Still, if that is true, I've got precisely eighteen years to kill before my life really begins, so I figure I'd better have a plan for the interim.

In my twenties, I made some mistakes. A few faux pas, an oops here and there. So, I've got my thirties to fix all those mistakes. In a word, my thirties shall be all about restoration (sounds good in theory, looks good in print). Then I'll turn forty, and my forties will be about enjoying the journey - walking my son through his teen years, taking he and his friends out for pizza Friday night after the game, chaperoning class trips along with my endearing soul-mate of a husband (role yet to be cast). And then finally, climactically, I will enter into my fifties, and I will have arrived. Ta-da!

Or something like that.I have a few very dear friends who happen to be women in their glorious Fifties - sagely in their wisdom, almost ethereal in their beauty. There is a stunning sort of beauty that seems to come from knowing better. It is a relaxed assurance that illuminates their faces with a certain elegance that cannot be feigned by the younger set - it can only be earned by putting in one's time. They have forged their way to this place of justified contentment, and now they are basking in it.

I love to look at their hands - feminine and yet worn with years of loving service. How many lunches have they made, how many tears have they dried, how many times have they folded in prayer for those whom they love? (I look at my own hands differently since I have become a mother. Our hands become magical, you know, when we use them to nurture children, whether our own or others' children whom we love. Suddenly our magic hands can fix toy trucks and budge sticky zippers and cut peanut butter sandwiches just right.)

Anyway, I may have another eighteen years to go before my life can officially begin at fifty, but parts of me seem to be getting a head start, starting with the head itself: today, yet another proud wiry white hair poked its way up out of the crowd of blonde ones, daring me to yank it out. I didn't. I suppose it's a right of passage.

On the flipside, last week I got pulled over for speeding on my way to the office, and for the first time in a while, I wasn't able to charm my way out of a ticket. I guess maturation does have its disadvantages...

Of Houses and Hearts

About a year-and-a-half ago, I bought a house. A townhouse, actually, and an old tired one at that. It had plenty of room, three good sized bedrooms and two baths, great views of an open field, and a nice little yard with a swingset for my kid. Let's just say that it had all the makings of a really good home for my little miniature family, but it was obvious that it was going to need some real TLC before it would be anything I could be proud to call home.

The old vinyl floor in the kitchen and powder room was faded and worn, not to mention conspicuously outdated, with its tiny country-blue hearts and flowers. There was no microwave (which was inconvenient, since that happens to be the one kitchen appliance that I have mastered the use of), but only a sad-looking harvest gold extractor hood, which I knew would have to go immediately. The kitchen cabinets were original (meaning only two younger than I am myself), and despite layers of white paint, they screamed "replace me!" whenever I peered in their direction. The plain, flat insulated steel entry door was dented and scuffed and had no more character than a tiny peephole at eye level, and the staircase was guarded by an unsightly one-piece black wrought iron railing, which I promised myself would be the first thing I would update.

I bought and closed on the home in April, and immediately set to the task of bringing about my vision for my new aquisition. I saw much potential hiding in the ugliness contained in its four walls, and I told it so. "You will be beautiful one day... trust me," I said as I ran my hand along one of its scuffed and scarred dirty beige walls, stained with time. The obnoxious black railing came down and I hired a stair company to build a lovely oak-and-iron balustrade with basket and twist details. The nasty old vinyl floor was covered over with wood laminate, updating the kitchen instantly (the inside of the kitchen pantry was not re-floored, however, and now whenever I reach in for the Cheerios, I am reminded of my kitchen's past life). The harvest gold hood was ripped off and replaced with a nice microwave hood, finally enabling me to cook (or, at least, to re-heat). I had the entire home repainted, in earthy tones of khaki and sage (and of course, one room in all-American-boy-blue). I replaced the front door with a charming decorative door with an integrated leaded glass window. And then I stepped back and looked at what my tired, abused old home had become, and I saw that it was good. And, seeing that it was good, I gave the house my final mark of approval: I moved in and made it my home.

It is interesting to me, when I allow myself to wax philosophical for just a moment, the many ways in which the transformation and restoration of a home can be likened unto the transformation and restoration of a heart. Humor me a moment, and I'll try to explain...

My house was old, dirty, and kind of smelled like feet. It was obvious that it had been mistreated rather than nurtured and cared for properly, and because of this lack of proper care, it was tired and sad, and it wore that sadness on its walls like battle scars.Hearts are like that, aren't they? When a human heart is not nurtured or cared for or maybe when it has even been abused and mishandled, its sadness can also translate into ugliness that is worn on the surface - an air of cynicism, a hardness in the eyes, a seemingly permanent scowl. Or maybe the sadness never finds its way out; maybe the tears are cried in instead of cried out, and maybe that heart becomes also similar to my old "before" house - lovely and manicured on the outside, with its new architectural roof and its neatly painted shutters - and only upon opening the door can one see the sadness and ugliness that has been hidden within.

My house needed the touch and the investment of someone who would care for it and restore it and be willing to call it home. It needed someone who would see all that it could be, someone who would dare to enter into its tired, bedraggled, miry state and work patiently from the inside out, making the old new again, and the dirty clean once more. You might know where I'm headed with this analogy; our hearts are like my old house. A heart needs that same restorative touch of someone who cares enough to invest in it, to enter into its filth, to clean it up and love it and - you guessed it - to call it home.

I'm so glad God seems to think like a real estate investor. I'm so thankful that He sees my potential even when I am dirty and tired and ugly and wearing my years of mistreatment on my battle-scarred walls. I'm so glad that He runs His able hand along those walls and whispers His promises to me, just as I did to my old ugly house on that first day after I bought it. And it is worth noting that I didn't wait until the house was pretty before I bought it. I bought it when it was ugly. I bought it when it smelled liked feet.

A major difference between God and myself, though: I waited until my house was somewhat pretty before I chose to move in. God is far more tenacious as a restorer, moving right in in the midst of our filth and disarray. I'm so glad that God's love is the sort of "reckless, raging fury" that moves right in and makes itself at home, even before we are the least bit able to offer him hospitality - even when, like any nasty old building, we ought to be condemned. But He doesn't condemn us. He moves in. He calls our hearts Home. That amazes me.

My nasty old house is still old, but it isn't nasty anymore (most of the time!). It is obvious now that someone loves it and cares for it and keeps it clean (most of the time!) and smelling like vanilla instead of feet. It is useful to its owner now, serving me well, allowing me to offer hospitality to others when I play hostess for gatherings and groups. We ought to do the same with our hearts as we do with our homes - invite others in, and offer hospitality and warmth from within its walls.

One more thing about my house, though - it's not exactly finished yet, you see. I haven't yet replaced the old painted cabinets in the kitchen, and that thirty-year-old countertop is now screaming to be replaced as well (in fact, just this week, one of its laminate edges broke off completely, exposing some very old pressboard guts). My house is still a work in progress... yes, much like my heart (and yours). And even once I find the time and money to finish updating the kitchen, I will still be able to open my pantry and look at about four square feet of old country-blue heart-and-flower vinyl floor, should I need to be reminded that my house has a past.

But if you ask me, a house with a past is far more interesting than a brand-new house, anyway. A house with a past has stories to tell. If only its walls could talk... what would they say, I wonder? What would they have to share?

And that, of course, is how hearts are far more lovely than houses. Hearts can speak and share and tell stories about from whence they have come. They can tell others about the mighty restorative hand that made them new again. They can tell other dirty, bedraggled, tired hearts that there is hope, that there is a creative, visionary God with a love like a reckless raging fury who is eager and willing and able to pursue them, purchase them, inhabit them, restore them, and call them home.

End of an Era (Journal entry from BEFORE I turned old)

Saturday, December 31, 2005

So, I just turned 29 and suddenly I find myself waxing somewhat philosophical. Someone once told me that our twenties are supposed to be about self-discovery, and so of course this is my last year in which to discover myself, or I suppose this will have been a waste of a decade. No pressure there.I don't know that I have discovered myself, as it were, but I have certainly learned much about this person I find staring me down in the mirror every day. And, short of discovering myself, at least now I like myself enough to be able to say that if I were not me, I would want to be my friend. Or, at least, I would want to buy Me a latte and get to know Me better.

So, who have I become over the past 29 years on this planet? I was born a sin-stained earthen vessel, flawed in my humanity, and try as I have to remedy that, I remain the same. I would surmise that part of "self-discovery" is the discovery that perfection is an unattainable goal, this side of Heaven. I am not who I wish I was, but I am someone I can live with (good thing). STILL...

I drive too fast. I drink too much Diet Coke, too much coffee (my "soft addictions", according to a very frank friend of mine). I am awful at most sports. When playing the piano, I have a "heavy" left hand - when drumming, I am "fill-happy." I am not as fearless as I would like to be. I care what people think, even though it is much cooler not to. In my faith walk, I tend to take one step forward and two steps back at times. I have a nasty little habit of inserting my foot into my mouth, and an even nastier habit of apologizing too much. I often try to cram 20 hours worth of productivity into a 24-hour day, which when I do the math, tells me that I don't afford myself much time for sleep. I have a hard time standing up for myself, a hard time admitting need, and a hard time forgiving myself. I tend to complicate things, tend to overthink and underpray. I have a peculiar tendency to self-destruct when under pressure. BUT...

I am a good (not perfect) mom. I am very nurturing. I give great back massages and foot rubs. I am a forgiving person. I am a good listener, an even better hugger. I am fun to hang out with, good at making people laugh. I can do uncanny impersonations. I am a decent writer. I have sadly accepted the fact that I will never be an alto, but I am a well-trained soprano nonetheless. I have relative perfect pitch, which comes in handy. I am good at Scrabble and Pictionary. I am a very smart shopper (never pay retail!). I am a faithful friend and an ethical employee. Little kids like me and teenagers think I'm cool (major boost to the ego right there). I can french braid my own hair. I see the glass as half-full most of the time.

Moreover, I may not be who I want to be, but I sure as heck am not who I used to be. I may not have yet arrived at wherever I am going, but at least I am not where I was. I am a work in progress. I am Not Finished Yet.

"Author Under Construction. Please check back regularly for updates."

The Ministry of Noticing

Twice in the past month, I have had friends repent to me for misspelling my name. Ignore the fact that my parents chose to spell my name in a manner that, unbeknownst to them, is phonetically incorrect, and that "J-E-N-N-A" actually looks a lot better and makes a lot more sense than "J-E-N-A", which the rules of phonics dictate should be pronounced "Gina." Ignore both of these facts, because I digress... Already.

The point is, two of my friends -- one old, one new -- took a moment to notice something that some might think relatively insignificant, but that in fact is quite the opposite. A person's name is important. In Biblical times, parents put a great deal of consideration into chosing names for their heirs. Isaac received his name, meaning "he laughs", after Abraham laughed at the notion of Sarah's miraculous pregnancy. Samuel ("God has heard") was given his name after his mother, Hannah, prayed earnestly and fervently for a child, and was overjoyed that her request had been heard and granted. And, if you need further (extrabiblical) proof that names are significant to a person's identity, just ask Dances with Wolves and Stands with a Fist.

(A side note: my son Jaden's name is from the Hebrew, also meaning "God hears and knows." As for me, my parents initially chose to name me Kelly, like any good Irish baby, which would have given me the legacy of "bright-headed one." Instead, because the name had already been used in the family, I became Jena, "the small bird." So, I didn't have to live up to the expectation of being bright, after all.)

Anyway, the fact that my friends took note of the correct spelling of my name, and then set about being intentional to spell it differently in the future, said something to me. It said that I mattered, and it said that they noticed.

Can we get good and honest for a minute here? We all want to be noticed, to some extent. If it were not so, we wouldn't bother to change our profile pictures or update our statuses on Facebook, now would we? Would we bother at all if we thought no one would take note of it? According to my sister, who on principle very rarely updates her status, there is something inherently narcissistic about Facebook. I think that's stretching it a bit, but if you dial down the drama a few notches and delete the diagnostic code she has just labeled upon us all, I think I can smell what she's cookin'. We want someone to read our stuff, browse our profile, look at our photos. And I don't know about you, but I get a little giddy when one of you pops by my profile and writes on my wall, or sends me some Flair, or gives me a sticker. It means I crossed your mind. It means someone said, in essence, "Hey, I know you're there."

Back in the dark ages, like 2006 or so, some of us used to do crazy things like get in our cars and drive to Target and buy a Hallmark card and write in it - like, real writing, with a pen! Crazy! - and seal it and stamp it and... Phew. Well, I'm exhausted. Thank goodness we've evolved since then. Now with a little click of our mouse, we can let our friends know they crossed our minds. Pretty cool.

So here's my thesis: I believe, being the cock-eyed optimist that I am, that Facebook could start a revolution of "noticing" and acting on it, not only in the virtual world of cyberspace, but maybe even in this concrete jungle that we inhabit when we're not nose-to-screen. If we get used to making comments and writing notes and sending little virtual presents, maybe - just maybe - that senstivity will translate into the real world, where there are people all around us who are desperate to be noticed, desperate for our comments, desperate for confirmation that they matter. They might really need one of these: :) or one of these: <3 or one of these: (((hug))) but in the real world we'll have to use our faces and our arms instead of our keyboards, which will require a bit more effort, so start small if you must. You could always start by spelling their name correctly.

Topamax: A Cautionary Tale

I just spoke with a friend of mine who, like me, has suffered over the years from debilitating migraines. She was excited because her neuro had just put her on a "new" drug, the miraculous pharmaceutical wonder, Topamax (which is not new at all, only newly prescribed for off-label use in treating migraines. Topamax is an anti-convulsant designed to treat epilepsy and sometimes prescribed as a mood stabilizer for bipolar disorder).

Anyway, she was optimistic that her lack of a headache for the past eight days would be indicative of the overall success she would have in relieving her symptoms, and as I assured her, this could very likely be true, as I did not have a single migraine attack during the many months that I was on the 'Max. HOWEVER...I also felt it was my place to give her a little more information -- more than that which is detailed in the legally-mandated pharmaceutical disclosure insert. For the sake of objectivity, I also encouraged her to do a little googling for herself and read other patients' experiences on the many, many online chatrooms devoted to this drug. To save you time, though, if you or someone you care about is considering taking this miracle drug, here is MY own experience, encapsulated (so to speak).

First thing I noticed was the bizarre tingling in my fingers and toes, and the burning sensation on the top of my head (a little freaky when you can FEEL a drug working in your brain). Also, my tongue would become numb and feel like it was filling my mouth. This would eventually make talking a challenge (and I rather like to talk). But, whatever. I figured I could deal, if it meant no more headaches. I could stick it out, if those were the only side effects. They weren't.

In a few weeks, I began to experience unbelievable vertigo. I would sit at my desk at work with the mouse in my hand, and it would feel as though it were swelling in my hand and I could barely hold onto it. Then my chair would begin to tilt forward until I felt like I would slide right off it and land under my desk on the floor.

And then the really fun stuff started: the "mild aphasia" that the inserts warned me about. Let me tell you, aphasia is no less incapacitating if we label it "mild." If you're unfamiliar with the term, aphasia is defined as "one in a group of speech disorders in which there is a defect or loss of the power of expression by speech, writing, or signs, or a defect or loss of the power of comprehension of spoken or written language." Does that sound "mild" to you? I was losing my ability to speak and to formulate sentences. One look at the blotter pages from my work calendar at that time will tell you how screwed up I was. I couldn't spell. Not even my own NAME (seriously). The word 'remember' was spelled, 'rerememember.' My handwriting changed, resembling that of an angry twelve-year-old boy (or perhaps a serial killer). Food tasted terrible. My Diet Coke no longer had fizz, and tasted a bit like chicken.

I am appalled to hear how often Topamax is now being prescribed for off-label use as a weight loss aid. Will it work? Very likely. Is it worth it? That's a personal decision. You'd have to ask all the skinny people who can't form sentences or write their names. But be patient as you wait for them to answer; they will probably stop mid-sentence and forget what the question was. And we're not done yet. There's more.

My short-term memory evaporated. I couldn't remember sequences of events or put them in order in my mind, and I had to write everything down - everything. On three separate occasions, I made deposits at the drive-through at my bank and drove off with their little tube thingy (Do you know how embarrassing it is to go into the bank with three tubes in your arms and confess that you've done that MORE than once??).

Two more... Hair loss. They don't tell you about this one, and it often doesn't happen until you've titrated up to some of the higher dosages, but it is really not that uncommon (again, google it - you won't find it on the offical Topamax website, that's for sure). Topamax drastically depletes the body of the B vitamin Biotin, which is essential to the health of hair and nails. I lost about a third of my hair (judging from the thickness of my ponytail). Are you scared yet? There's more.

Depression. Not just ho-hum, got-the-blahs despression, but big-time full-blown chemically-imbalanced clinical wanna-die depression. This was the one that finally made me come to my senses. I sat across from my mom one night at a table at Syl's, trying to enjoy an amazing meal (we were celebrating something... of course, I can't remember what because I was drugged) and I could not stop crying. Tears just kept falling into my double-baked potato with a salty sad splat. Nothing was wrong. I just wanted to die, that's all. For no identifiable reason.

This could have been where the story fades to black. But it isn't. At the admonition of friends and family, I chose to flush the blasted miracle drug down the toilet and go back to chomping Advil Migraine like pez. So, that's my story. It might not be yours, so take this or leave it; it's up to you. This is just the stuff I wish someone had told me before I nearly became a statistic.

He Said, She Said

So I'm sitting in the office this morning, having a little chit-chat with my friend Bob about the differences between men and women. His theory is that a man's brain is full of “boxes” - a box for his buddies, a box for the car, a box for his job, a box for his wife or girlfriend, a box for the kids. He says the key is, these boxes must never be allowed to touch one another. Everything is compartmentalized. And, he tells me, they have one other box, a secret box that the women in their lives know not of. This box, he says, contains nothing. Nothing at all. Pure nothing. It's their favorite box, he says.

I told him my theory about men and women's brains. Sitting at the computer, I used my screen as a little visual aid (men do well with visuals, right?). “Look, Bob,” I said, “See my screen here? See how I have about eight different windows open at once? I am working on all of these things. One is my online bank account. One is an unfinished query letter to a literary agency. One is an email to a friend. One is a chapter to the book I am working on. One is a follow-up letter to all the people I had through my open house on Sunday. One is the Allstate website because I am looking up their phone number so I can bug them about my reimbursement check. One is the MLS database, because I'm searching for properties. And one is google, because I need to find the perfect chocolate dessert to make for some friends next weekend.”

Bob laughed. “You're doing all those things at once? What, do you have ADD or something?”

“Nope,” I said. “I'm just multitasking. It's what women do.”

“Don't you ever want to just think about nothing?” Bob asked, in awe.

“We can't,” I said, shaking my head. “It's not possible.”

“You know,” Bob said, “I read one time that they did a study at some research hospital somewhere to see if people really could think about nothing. Honest to Pete, they discovered that a man's brain is capable of showing such little activity that he would appear to be dead.”

“See what I mean?” I countered. “My brain will probably still show activity after I really am dead. I'll be thinking of all the things I meant to get done before I died!”

“Okay,” Bob said, clearly intrigued. “So if you say your brain is like that computer screen, with all those windows open at once, what's going on in my brain right now?”

I smiled. “Screen saver.”

Wishin' and Prayin'

I'm not an especially assertive person. A few of you have sent me Facebook messages telling me that I seem so much bolder than you remember me in middle school, high school, college, prison, wherever we saw one another last. (Okay, not prison. Just making sure you pay attention.) I appreciate your messages, but as I read them they cause me to giggle through my coffee, because I'm only bold in my "virtual" world. My friend has a magnet on her fridge that says "I wish I were the person my dog thinks I am." I think I need one that says, "I wish I were the person my Facebook friends think I've become."

But wishing only gets us so far. I could wish for a lot of things. I used to make quite a habit of wishing. I wish I could go back in time. I wish I had finished school. I wish I had eyes like Bonnie's, hair like Kris' and a body like Ellen Pompeo's. I wish I were less neurotic, and didn't care so much about things that don't matter. I wish I could be a stay-at-home mom, I wish I could get a multi-book contract, I wish I were more proficient on piano. I wish, I wish, I wish. Wishing gets singularly dull after a while. I wish I could stop wishing.

Wish granted! I've decided to trade wishing for hoping. The key, of course, is to know the difference. You have to sort out the changeable from the unchangeable. Reciting the serenity prayer helps, if you can get through it without feeling like Stuart Smalley. If you can do that, then you might be able to eventually trade the hoping for praying and mingle the prayer with action.

My son Jaden's kindergarten teacher last year taught the kids an invaluable little mantra: "'Ya git whatcha git and you don't throw a fit." Maybe that's a magnet I need on my fridge. It's true, after all; we "git" what we "git." What we're responsible for is what we do with what we "git." And all the wishing in the world won't change that.

I think I'm starting to get it. It has taken 32 years, but I'm starting to understand. And who knows? If I continue to listen to the wisdom of kindergarten teachers, I may just become the person my Facebook friends think I am.

Depression: The New Black?

So I'm standing in line at Starbucks this afternoon (thanks to all of you who have purchased gift cards to help fund my espresso addiction in this economically dry season), and I can't help but notice the emotional state of my barista, Kristy. Most baristas at Starbucks seem to have been trained to exude sunshine and rainbows with their glowing smiles and conversational ease. They're breezy, for the most part; they're takin' orders, makin' lattes, lovin' life. (They also have a pretty sweet job, earning full health insurance benefits for just 20 hours a week, while pushing one of America's last legal drugs). Kristy, though, seems to have missed a memo. She's not breezy. Her smile doesn't glow. In fact, she sort of looks like someone has just killed her puppy.

This doesn't sit well with me. I can't very well just take my double tall nonfat extra foam cappuccino and leave. I gotta know what's up. Something's not right. So, because somewhere deep inside me is a junior high school social worker who missed her calling, I dig a little.

"So, have you been here since like five in the morning?" It's a good ice breaker. Everyone knows those poor kids in the green aprons start work at the crack of dawn, and my guess is that doesn't go over well with a teenager.

"Pfft," Kristy replies. "Shyeah. Yesterday and today. I just wanna get out of here."

"I'll bet you do," I say. "It's pretty awesome weather out there for February. I hope you can get out there and enjoy it soon."

"Yeah," Kristy sighs. "I'll probably just go home and sleep anyway, so it doesn't really matter."

"Mmm. Probably didn't get much sleep if you had to make it here by five."

"Actually, I went to bed at like 7:30 last night," she says, sweeping her pink and black bangs across her forehead. "If you're asleep, you don't notice how badly your life sucks."

"This is true," I say, waiting for more.

She obliges. "I swear, all my friends and I are like that. It's like, why would we want to be awake, right? Like, why would anyone actually choose to be awake rather than sleeping? I mean, seriously." She hands my gift card back to me. I notice the tattoo on her left hand: TWLOHA.

"To Write Love on Her Arms, right?" I ask, gestering to her hand.

"Yeah," she says, smiling just enough for the pendant lights to create a glint on her braces. She looks surprised that someone like me (someone, you know, like, old) would be familiar with the acronym. "It's just, you know, a thing. It's just something I'm sort of into."

"You must really care about that cause," I say. "I mean, tattoos are permanent. Did your parents ask what it meant?"

"They didn't even notice the tattoo," she says, a disgusted look coming across her face like a shadow. "And I've had it for, like, two months."

I glance outside. I should go. My kid's gonna be home in fifteen minutes. But I can't. I take a slow sip of my coffee and proceed with caution. "Really," I say. "Two months and they never noticed?"

She shakes her head, razor-edged strands of hair swinging side to side. "So..." I say, running my finger over the top of my to-go cup, "If they ever happen to notice, what are you gonna tell them?"

"Huh," Kristy scoffs, picking at her cuticles. "Tell them I'm into cutting? As if."I nearly choke on my cappuccino. She has obviously missed the mission of To Write Love on Her Arms. I can't believe she is telling me this.

I thought about Kristy for the rest of the day. Not so much because she is an anomaly (she isn't), and not because I am particularly horrified by those who self-harm (I'm not). The thing that got to me, as I replayed the conversation throughout the day, is how casually she spoke of her self-injurious behavior, and about the collective state of depression of her circle of friends. And from where I sit, observing the world from a concerned layman's point of view, the problem is not only that teenage depression is an epidemic. The problem is that it is trendy.

One would have to be living under a rock to be unaware of the current "emo" culture. Movies like "Prozac Nation" and "Numb" and "Girl Interrupted" have gathered a cult-like following (and I have to admit that I own the latter). Rhianna's hit "Disturbia" was nominated for a Grammy tonight for best dance recording. We dance to lyrics like these:

It's a thief in the night / To come and grab you / It can creep up inside you / And consume you / A disease of the mind / It can control you / It's too close for comfort

The good news is, there doesn't seem to be much stigma in being clinically depressed anymore. This, as I see it, is progress. But progress can progress too far, can't it? Marya Hornbacher, in her memoir "Wasted," says it this way: "People who’ve Been to Hell and Back develop a certain sort of self-righteousness. There is a tendency to say: I have an addictive personality, I am terribly sensitive, I’m touched with fire, I have Scars. There is a self-perpetuating belief that one simply cannot help it, and this is very dangerous. It becomes an identity in and of itself. It becomes its own religion, and you wait for salvation, and you wait, and wait, and wait, and do not save yourself."

And that, I think, is why Kristy was on my mind all day, and why now, at one o'clock in the morning, I find myself troubled not only for her, but for her entire generation, which happens to include a lot of kids that I love to death. Once depression becomes identity, what motivation is there to seek out help and receive healing? I gave Kristy a telephone number to someone I thought she might find helpful. I told her I would see her again (and now I have an excuse to return to Starbucks, which is always convenient).

And now, at 1:00 am, I am going to leave her, and the rest of generation black, in the hands of God. Otherwise, quite frankly, I'll end up depressed. I'm just sayin'.

To My Beautiful Girlfriends (Read: ALL of you!) -- posted on Facebook in 02/09

Yesterday marked a little milestone in my short little life. In support of a great lady out in Tennessee who is making a difference in the war against twisted cultural ideals of beauty and self-image, I posted a picture of a nude-faced Jena. The woman, Constance, has challenged herself to go sans makeup for one month (and yes, she picked the shortest month of the year, but it's also eating disorder awareness month, so we won't hold that against her, will we?). Well, a few days ago, Constance was getting a little tired of posting "scary pictures" of herself on Facebook, so I offered to do the same, as a gesture of support and encouragement. She said she would appreciate that, so I uploaded the nude-faced pic and tagged her in it as proof of my (notably admirable) loyalty. But she took it a step further and challenged me to make the pic my PROFILE pic for a day. Now THAT, I gotta say, I wasn't so enthusiastic about. Of course, all anyone has to do is challenge me or dare me, and I'm stirred. Hence the "naked" profile pic of Jena.

I wasn't prepared for the response I got from so many of you. My inbox was full throughout the day. Some of you shared things with me that I would never have expected, and I want you to know how much I appreciate your honesty. It made me feel pretty warm to realize that you felt comfortable enough (or, at least, compelled) to respond as you did. But it also made me realize just how far-reaching the damage of our western beauty myths has extended. I was shocked to learn how many of my (beautiful!) friends are at war with their own reflections. (Please note: I have tagged many more people here than just those who sent me messages, so don't try to figure out who responded. You'll never know, and that's how it should be!)

Last night around midnight, figuring I had fulfilled my duty, I changed my profile picture. I was all too happy to do so. Then I woke up this morning to more messages from you, and I felt convicted to put the naked-faced shot back up for another day. I had NO IDEA such a teeny little act of "protest" would spur such a reaction. Things are all a-buzz in my little corner of the Facebook world. I never thought disturbing the peace would be so fulfilling.

Enjoy your day, my pretties. You are God's masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10)...Jena

Love Lessons

Will Rogers was full of baloney. He is known to have said, "I never met a man I didn't like." Call me cynical, but I find that hard to believe. What about the guy who cut him off in traffic? What about the guy who stole his girl? What about the guy who spread nasty rumors about him on the internet, stole his identity, and sent him harrassing text messages? Okay, maybe those things never happened to Will Rogers. The point is, not everyone is likeable, and if we're good and honest (and we're not), we simply do not like everybody.

Well, that's not very Christlike, you might say, and I would disagree. (And, in keeping with the theme, my disagreeing with you might cause you not to like me. But I disgress.) Did Jesus really like everybody? We know that He was sinless. We know that He showed love to all people (impossible for Him not to show love, since God is love). But did He like all the people He loved? And do we have to?Let's bring this down to an elementary level for just a minute, and consult the ol' Webster's dictionary. Webster defines the words 'like' in this way: 'to be suitable or agreeable to; to feel attraction toward or take pleasure in.' We already know Jesus wasn't in agreement with everybody; that one is simple enough. Did he have an attraction toward all people? Perhaps to some more than to others. This is purely speculation on my part, and if I am way off, God Himself will take it up with me some day when I ask Him about this (and I plan to).

Moving on.The Great Webster defines 'love' simply as: to have affection for. Not a very comprehensive definition, but we know Jesus certainly had an affection for all people (affection meaning 'fond attachment and devotion'). I can think of no more profound demonstration of devotion than to lay down one's life for others. Still, Webster's definition of love leaves me unsatisfied, so let's see what God Himself has to say on the subject.'Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things; believes all things; hopes all things; endures all things.' (I Corinthians 13:4-8). Okay, now that sounds like Jesus to me. It also sounds much harder to do than to simply have affection for people. Affection comes easily to me; patience, not so much. I very often want to insist on my own way. I can be irritable, I'm sure (ask my son). I don't necessarily rejoice in what is wrong, but I certainly don't always rejoice in what is right. And can my love really be expected to endure all things? All things means ALL things. That's a lot of things to endure. Do I really have to?

In a word, yes. Whatever love is, I am called to personify it in the world. Whatever love looks like, it is to be made visible in my life. Loving people is not optional, not up for debate, not an elective course in the school of life. Liking people, though, is a grayer area, and I am pretty grateful for that, because it means I can have opinions. I don't have to become a pleasant but mindless clone. I can be honest with God and with myself and say, 'you know, this person or that person just really hacks me off. They get on my last nerve. If I never see them again, it will be too soon.' But, most likely, God will ensure that I see them again. Being the perfect father that He is, He seems to place those people - those "prickly people" whom I do not like - in my path as many times as it takes for me to learn to love them.

From where I sit, I see a common misconception about love. We tend to think that love is something that we feel. And it certainly can be. Showing love when we feel love for a person comes naturally to many (though not all) of us. But what about when we don't feel it? Love is still possible and, in fact, mandated. No, love is not something you feel; love is something you do, and something you do intentionally. It must be chosen and acted upon. Christ's death upon the cross was a profound act of love. My guess is, He didn't "feel like" giving His life that day, and certainly not in that way. He asked His Father if He would let the cup pass from Him - in other words, "Father, is there any other way?" - and yet the act of love was when He followed that prayer with a famous, world-changing sentiment: Nevertheless. "Nevertheless," Jesus prayed, "Not my will but Yours be done." That, as I see it, is love in action. That is love as choice, rather than love as feeling. And I'm pretty sure it's not the choice I would have made (which is one of many reasons it's good that I am not God).

So, what have we learned here in our little love lesson? We do not have to like people in order to love them. We do not have to feel love in order to demonstrate it. And knowing these things will not make it any easier. Class dismissed. Go in love.

Pimples and Wrinkles

It's an ordinary tuesday, like any other day. I climb out of bed, put on my robe and slippers, and pad into the bathroom. I turn the faucet all the way to hot, hold a washcloth under the stream of warming water, and meet my own gaze in the mirror. There she is. Same ol' mug as yesterday, and the day before. Except... what the... Oh, no. You've got to be kidding me, I think. Seriously? Seriously??

It's a pimple. Right there, on the forehead, little left of center. Come ON, I think. I'm too old for this. I am thirty-two years old. In fact, I am not only too old for pimples, I am old enough for wrinkles. I lean in closer, straining to see myself clearly with my aging myopic eyes. Yep, there they are. Tiny, fine lines, right there beside the eyes, and a stubborn vertical crease between the brows, a result of years of habitual squinting. I stand tall, pulling away from the mirror. I sigh. Pimples and wrinkles, at the same time... doesn't seem right. That just seems like too much ugly on one face.

I ponder on this injustice as I brush my teeth (the teeth, thank the Lord, are still good). Suddenly, through a mouthful of toothpaste, I laugh. And I laugh. And I laugh some more. How odd... I seem to have the worst of both worlds, stuck between adolescent awkwardness and middle-aged malaise! Pimply adolescents, as I perceive them, still have most of their lives ahead of them. They have a lot to learn. They're usually not quite sure who they are, and they stumble through life with precious few tools, breaking things as they go, learning lessons and making messes. And those who have soldiered through and arrived in middle-age or beyond, as I perceive them, have established some things for themselves. They are no longer preoccupied with pleasing all people at all times (they have, no doubt, learned that such a goal is a waste of invaluable energy). They not only know who they are, they no longer wish to be anyone else. They boast the beauty of a mosaic - a masterpiece of broken pieces, arranged and rearranged into something lovely, though the brokenness remains.

Pimples and wrinkles. Awkwardness and assurance. As I rinse my mouth and blot my face dry, it all makes sense. Of course I should have both... This is me. Learned and learning. Established and evolving. Grown and still growing.

Too much ugly on one face? Maybe. But at least it's an honest image. I'm just sayin'.

If They Only Knew (Song for Polly)

IF THEY ONLY KNEW (Song for Polly)

Walks past the storefront window
Sees her reflection in the glass
She doesn’t really know that girl
Might have met her in the past

Seems to have it all together
Must just sail right through life
Probably someone’s mother
Someone’s lover, someone’s wife

(chorus)But oh, if they only knew
The confusion and the lies
If they could see the struggle
That she snuggles with at night
If they could see behind the smile
To where the worries lie
They’d nevermore believe her
When she says “I’m doing fine”

Goes to church on Sunday
They’d notice if she didn’t show
She’s a familiar face
A name that everybody knows

She teaches little children
How to love and serve their Lord
And all that know her love her
But there’s a shadow they ignore

(chorus)Because oh, if they only knew
How she cries herself to sleep
If they could see her weariness
And the secrets that she keeps
If they could look beyond her mask
To the tenderness inside
They’d dig a little deeper
When she says “I’m doing fine”

(bridge)And when the sun sets in the evening
And when her telephone stops ringing
She’s needing something to believe in
And wishing somebody would call
Oh, anyone at all

And oh, if they only knew
All the questions in her heart
If they could know the emptiness
Of how they echo in the dark
If they could see her hidden tears
And hear her silent, stifled cry
They’d never let her get away
She’d never go another day
They simply wouldn’t let her say
“I’m doing fine”

Polly Williams (1974-2008)

Eavesdropping in Starbucks

So, I'm sitting in Starbucks right now, in my usual corner that always seems to have been left vacant because it was waiting just for me. I have my laptop in front of me, and I have vowed to myself to avoid the internet today, in the interest of getting some real writing accomplished. But, just for a moment, I have to break my vow, because I have to share this. Or, at least, I have to take a minute to write it, since that seems to be my chosen means of processing life.

This tender, quiet man is sitting at the table behind me, talking to a very loud and outspoken woman. The man is older, maybe in his mid-seventies, and he is telling this woman how badly he misses his wife, and how he believes that his newly diagnosed cancer is his gift from God, so that he can go home to Heaven to be with her. The woman is telling him that he mustn't think that way, or he will have no chance of beating the cancer. For the past 45 minutes, she has been doing most of the talking, while I try not to eavesdrop (clearly, I'm not putting forth much of an effort). She is very eloquent and articulate. She has either practiced this speech in front of the mirror or she talks for a living. I've decided that she would make a decent motivational speaker, but a crappy therapist, because she hasn't listened to a single word the man has said.

The guy misses his wife. He is beside himself. She's been gone six months, and he hasn't slept in their bedroom yet because he can't bear the thought of inhabiting it without her, so he's been sleeping on the couch. He doesn't know what to do with himself, because he has never had to be with himself unless she was there to tell him who he was. He was always "Ellen's Jim"... and now he doesn't know how to just be "Jim." They never had children, and now, as an old man, he regrets this.

I haven't turned around to look at the guy, but in my mind he is incredibly lovable and cute, in that sweet, musty-smelling old man way. And I gotta say, this woman is getting on my last nerve. I want to spin around in my chair, shove her scone in her mouth, and take the cute old man home with me. I want to take him to the park and to the mall and bowling and golfing and teach him to play the drums and draw. I want to help him figure out who Jim is without Ellen. But, first, I'd better get a little more writing done.

Anyway... if you think of it, pray for my sweet friend Jim here, who doesn't want to live without Ellen, and pray for his annoying know-it-all friend. And then pray that I can stop eavesdropping long enough to edit a chapter or two.