It’s Like Riding a Bike

I’ll be the first to say that it’s kind of silly. I’m not really sure how it turned into a “thing,” or how so many people came to know about it. Maybe it’s because they all kept offering. “Let me teach you!” they’d say, and I would shake my head. “You don’t know what you’d be getting yourself into,” I’d retort, and adamantly insist that no, no, you’re not the one. Sorry, but no.

Honestly, I was completely content with not being able to ride a bike. Everyone asked how it happened—how did a little girl growing up in suburban America miss out on such a crucial skill? And I don’t know. I had a bike with training wheels, but they just never took the training wheels off. To get to my best friend’s house in the neighborhood over, I’d cut through the land that belonged to the Countryman family, climb the fence, and traipse through the woods. Later, I ended up moving to the street she lived on anyway, and then I could just walk up the hill. I never thought much about not being able to ride a bike, but when I did, I shuddered. I don’t do well on my feet, and most of my near-death experiences have involved moving contraptions (“Golf carts”? More like “death traps.”)

But when I got to college, all of my new friends were shocked when I said, “I’ve never ridden a bike without training wheels” in our “Never Have I Ever” game. (By the way, that was a killer move and I’m pretty sure I beat everyone because at that point, I’d never eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich either. Cha ching.) As my new friends turned into my friends and then into my old friends, it was always a funny quirk about me that they liked to bring up. “C’mon, I’ll teach you!” they implored. I would shake my head firmly. It’s not that I didn’t trust them; I just know I have a certain reputation with, er, coordination, and I felt like it was going to be an arduous task. Finally, I made the decree: “Look, I’m going to let my future husband teach me. That way I’ll be able to fall down as much as I need to.” It both shut them down and put off the task; see, I wanted to learn to ride a bike, but I wanted to do it at some distant, hazy point in the future. And so I went about, walking on my own two feet, denying offers left and right. And I was happy.

***

            I met Caleb the same October day that I got the worst haircut of my life. I sat in Janie’s bathroom and sobbed as I stared at it in the mirror. For 10 whole seconds, I refused to leave the house. And because I have the best friend in the world (I am in debt to her for many things, but this stands as one very important one), she told me to shove it and get dressed. And because we sometimes do the things we’re told to, or because I didn’t want to stay home, or because life is made up of these seemingly insignificant moments that recolor everything—or perhaps because of all of the above—I did. I put on a blue sweater and got in the car and drove a few cities over. And it happened just as inconspicuously as that: We happened to be standing around, and one of us happened to say hello. And we happened to have a good conversation or make each other laugh or catch one another’s references. I can’t remember what we said, but I do know that he struck me, because later, on the way home, I asked Coston, who knew him from high school, about “that boy in the white T-shirt.” (This is how I know, Caleb, that you were definitely wearing a white T-shirt the night we met.) “Oh, Caleb?” Coston said. “What a great guy.” I added Caleb as a friend on Facebook.

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Things happen as we’re living; that is to say that Caleb and I became friends and then better friends and then old friends. We flirted with the idea of dating those first few months, but thought better of it and instead just kept in touch. I never thought about why, and I never thought it strange that we’d only seen each other in person a handful of times but talked so often. There were months that went by without contact, but then one of us would start the conversation again. “I found this book and thought of you,” he’d tell me, or, “Hey, what’s new with you?” I’d ask. Years passed this way. I dated other people, though not seriously. He thought about dating other people, though not seriously. We stayed in touch.

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During the spring of my senior year in college, Caleb asked me to edit his medical school application essay. We reconnected in a deeper way because graduating from college—and not knowing what was about to go down—and applying to medical school—and not knowing what was about to go down—had their similarities, namely that we were both in places where neither of us had the faintest idea of what was about to go down (in more ways than we originally thought). Our messages back and forth went like this: “Great blog post. I understand that everything is up in the air, but you’re doing a great job!” and, “Good luck on the MCAT! Even if you fail, we’ll all still love you.”

***

            One fall afternoon—almost exactly three years after we first met—we got a cup of coffee together. We were both nervous since it had been a long time since we’d seen each other, and we both brought buffers (I brought my roommate and he brought his sister; you know, just in case). But after a few minutes, I forgot they were there. If we were in a rom-com, this is the moment where the musical overlay would begin to play as I threw my head back in a laugh, my eyes dancing at him. Everything about him made me want to say yes. That coffee date turned into, “Do you want to come over after work?” which turned into late nights on my sofa, which turned into dinner at the J. Clyde, which turned into, “When can you meet my family?”, which turned into drives back and forth between cities, which turned into love, as they say.

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It was as if the us we would be had just been waiting to become. In so many ways, it happened easy, like breathing; in other ways, it happened hard, like climbing rocks with one hand. We were the same, and we were different. We went together and we had to learn how to go together. We fell into love and we had to jump. We still do, actually.

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***

            For my birthday this year, Caleb took me to a secondhand bookstore, where he tried to convince me to let him buy me a collector’s edition of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn [ed. note: Please read this book if you haven’t yet.] Then he gave me athletic socks—what I’d been asking for for months—and we ate Hawaiian pizza on my balcony while it rained. It was perfect. But the next day, he told me he had another present for me. He looked at me with eyes that said, “Let me teach you,” and I nodded. Everything about him made me want to say yes.

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Perhaps you’re thinking the best way for me to end this story is to show you a picture of me riding that bike, but the truth is that I can’t yet. But he has been teaching me, and let me tell you—it’s harder than it looks (my hat’s off to all of you who did it as 6-year-olds.) The first time I climbed on, I think both of us were hoping a little bit that maybe I would take to it like I took to eating pizza, since I’ve always been great at that. But I didn’t: I got on, flailed around a bit, and at the first sign of wobbling, I put my feet back on the ground. But Caleb isn’t giving up, and neither am I. I learn like this: “There you go. Find your stride. Don’t worry; I’m not letting go. I won’t let you fall.”

When he asked me to marry him, everything about him made me want to say yes.engaged

So I did.

 

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Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love

Occasionally, when I’m at work (simply because I’m sitting behind a desk all day), I start to feel sort of restless. Now, there are a number of ways to deal with that. The first is to ignore it and forge ahead. Another is to stand up, stretch, allow my back to pop loudly enough for someone in the office to comment on it, and then go take a bathroom break. The third is to take a little walk down to the coffee shop at the end of the street or to amble across the street, where my boyfriend lives. The fourth, though, is perhaps the quickest way to start feeling, once more, like I can breathe: I go to Amazon and real quick, like a fox, buy a new book. Once I know it’s on its way, I can return to regularly scheduled programming. All that to say that such a spell hit me the other day and I hopped (metaphorically, mind you) over to the He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named of book retailers and purchased Ten Things I’ve Learnt About Love.

Now, I haven’t actually read or even received this book yet, though I’m sure it’s terrific in some way or another (I mean, it’s a book.) But what it did make me think about was love, and more specifically, what I’ve learned about love lately. As you may have deduced (like a fox), I’ve been entrenched in the throes of romantic love for some time now, and I am also in love with the sky, the way my best friend calls me on my crap, the golden hour, unsweetened coffee, sweetened everything else, my mom’s text messages, making my roommate laugh, the timer on my coffee pot, my coworkers’ senses of humor, my pets (both my stuffed puppy and my life-filled kitten), and about a million other things. I am not and never will be into olives.

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So it seems that I too can offer some advice on love, don’t you think? I have 23 years of experience with the stuff, and if I told you I had 23 years of experience, say, sewing, you would let me whip you up a ball gown, wouldn’t you? I thought so.

TEN THINGS I’VE LEARNT ABOUT LOVE

1. Love is impossible. At least without the real, true love filling us up and making it a thing we can do. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19) and He is love and there is no love without Him (1 John 4:16). The only lovin’ I do is by tapping into this.

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2. Love is not a cookie. Sometimes it is fun and easy; for example, I really like buying cards and I love to love my people by buying them cards and writing in them and feeling warm and gooey. However, sometimes my people would rather I love them by cooking for them (which I’m terrible at) or scratching their backs for six million hours (I’m not mentioning any names) or by doing any one of the countless other things I’d rather not do at the moment because I really want to tell the saga about my encounter with the Target cashier. I’ve learned love often feels like a sacrifice, not a cookie. Cookies always feel like cookies, though.

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3. Love is better than cookies. Strange, but true.

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4. Love gives you lovely eyes. This is nice for those whom you love. For example, I think Caleb is the cleverest person I’ve ever met. Is he really? Well, I don’t know for sure. But I can assure with unbiased certainty that he is definitely in the top five. I also think that my best friend Gracie is less funny only than Jimmy Fallon; no, really. She’s much funnier than whomever you’re thinking of right now. Again, I’m really biased, because that’s what love does to you. This phenomenon is beautiful because it’s what lifts us up when life gets heavy.

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5. Love makes you dance. What’s nicer than knowing that you are loved? I can’t think of anything. Like James Taylor says, there ain’t no doubt in no one’s mind that love’s the finest thing around.

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6. Love isn’t always (or even usually) pretty. In fact, when two people are in any kind of substantial relationship, a sort of rhythm between the two parties emerges. Except the two of you aren’t always in step with each other, and sometimes one of you starts making Robot motions while the other just freezes up. Then somebody pipes up, “Hey! Get with the program!” Then the other person usually gets mad, because he or she isn’t about doing the Robot, and then you’re mired up in a two-hour conversation about how to get back in step with one another. Those conversations are (in my experience) not just valuable but absolutely vital; still, the friction can burn. But like my good friend Usher says, sometimes you gotta let it burn.

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7. Love can be forgotten. And by that, I mean you can forget to actively love. It happens to me when it’s grey and when I’m tired and when I’m just not in the mood. I forget to notice the world, which is full of remarkable things like scones and dimples and giraffes. I forget to say thank you when Caleb cooks dinner, and to call my best friend just to see how her day went, and, for goodness sakes, to smile at people on the street. But I’ll tell you one thing—it changes everything when we remember to pursue each other, to lavish one another, to outdo each other in loving.

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8. Love is (sometimes) quiet. I am a shout-it-from-the-rooftops, put-it-a-poem kind of girl. I’m pretty generous with my affection; I’ve been known to sing songs about my love for, say, hot chocolate (“Hot chocolate, hot chocolate, you make me feel so happy….) And while I think that’s a great way to love, I have been surprised by how love can gently tread the path before you, sweeping away the dust. The other day, I was staring in Caleb’s fridge and wondering how I hadn’t run out of cans of carbonated water yet. I’d put three or four in there a week ago and there were still three or four in there. And then Caleb came in. “Hey, have you been putting my water in the fridge?” “Yes.” Yes, it can be quiet indeed.

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9. Loves stretches. Over time, distance, and circumstance. Beyond despair and into hope. Around anger and annoyances and aggravation. Through depression, grievances, and sadness. It can be stretched and stretched and stretched, and still, it never breaks. In this way, love is not like saltwater taffy.

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10. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

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Sometimes I forget some or all of these things. And then somebody goes and loves me in a way that demonstrates its kindness or its patience or its perseverance, and I think, “Oh, yeah. That’s the real thing.”

How Do You Measure (Measure) a Year?

It’s been—well, just nearly—a year since I did it. Something like 359 days ago, I packed up my four years of becoming into my car, and I drove them home to my parents’ garage. I stacked the day that my Pulitzer-prize-winning professor wrote, “This sentence is a train wreck” alongside the day he told me, “You’re going to be a great writer.” I nestled the night I decided not to go to grad school into a box with the afternoon I applied for a job at Alabama Alumni Magazine. Into my bags of shoes I threw the moment we broke up, the letters I wrote, the weekends at the lake. I packed a jar of rocks that symbolized nothing (it sits on my windowsill now) in the same bin as my notebook of James Joyce notes, which also symbolizes nothing, but which I will keep forever. I packed up plates and spatulas and I did as a different person than even the one who’d been there just the day before. The very acts themselves, the sorting-through, the packing up, the driving away, they all seemed to make one last effort to stamp me. “You’re not quite finished!” that city insisted. “One more thing before you go….” I played alt-J’s “Matilda” over and over and over, just to hear the line, “Just like Johnny Flynn said, the breath I’ve taken and the one I must to go on.” last sunsetI remember how hard it was to say goodbye. (You probably do, too. I wrote about it again and again and again and yet again.) For as hard as it was, I left feeling satisfied that I’d done it properly. I left feeling sure that I’d squeezed out every ounce of rock sitting, river gazing, sunset chasing, library loving, friendship making, and becoming I could have. And I must have, because I eased onto I-20, pointed my SUV (which was carrying the contents of my entire closet) toward Birmingham, and never looked back. (Like Mary Oliver says, to live in this world, you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go.) But that is not to say that I didn’t bring some things with me. IMG_6199 I have this tendency to look back, I know. I also have this tendency to reach forward. And I am constantly trying to stand in the present (like Mary Oliver says, sometimes I need only to stand where I am to be blessed.) The good part about this is that I’m pretty aware, aware of what’s changing and what’s the same, aware of how long it’s been and long it will be, aware of how perfect or imperfect this right now is. And still, I am taken aback when these dates come up. I like them, though; like telephone poles along my way, they encourage me to look up. “Take note,” they say. They ask me questions I do and don’t want to answer: Do you like who you are? Are you different than you were? Are you proud? How could you be kinder, gentler, more loving? (Perspective: It’s OK if I never learn to cook, but it’s not OK if I haven’t gotten better at loving a year from now.) I can’t answer them quite yet. But I’m looking up. IMG_6039 And then there’s what’s happened in the past 359 days. The job, the home, the city, the friendships, the love, the coffee, the $900 tires that I’ll never get over: If I’ve learned anything—and I’ve learned this time and again, in the last year and in the year before that and in the year before that—it’s that we serve a good God. A faithful God. A loving God, a God who has the most remarkable knack for making our lives reflect his beauty, his grace, his patience, his mercy—a God who makes us look like him—and who, in his goodness, make these things really awesome for us at the same time. IMG_6355 But anyway, when I packed up my car and drove away, I was the most peaceful I’d ever been, despite being jobless, homeless, and probably in desperate need of an eyebrow wax. What a gift it was to understand how true the peace of God is, how it supersedes the world every single time. What a gift it was to have a front-row ticket to my own life, wherein the world was seemingly rearranged to “work out” (“And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you.” [Matthew 6:30]). How fist-clenchingly, wet-armpitsingly difficult it was to trust. How many of these lessons I am still learning. Like Mary Oliver says, you can have the other words—chance, luck, coincidence, serendipity. I’ll take grace. And this I can say for certain: I have seen and tasted that he is good. So very good. The point of all of it was that I would just that and that I would tell the world about it. If I can get that across with my words/my life, then I’m satisfied (and just so we’re clear, I have to remind myself of that sometimes. I mean, just in case you were already monogramming my martyr hat.) onestepatatimeAnd though I am different—love and $900 tires will do that to a girl—I stand in so many of the same places. I learn still to trust, to sing, to turn my hands up to the sky, to tell the world about it. There are things I learned and then forgot, things I should have right by now but fail at nonetheless, things I wonder if I’ll ever get down. There are days when you’d wonder if I ever learned any of it at all, days when I break my own heart with lackluster loving, days when I am the only thing standing in my way and still, I refuse to move. And there are days when I stand on the sidewalk and stare up, unable to move because the wonder of life and God and the sky has me drenched again. Sometimes, those days are the same days. Life is a funny little (big) thing. IMG_6322 Best of all, perhaps, is that nothing ended (OK, except college) when I moved, and in the same way, nothing (OK, except real life) began. I felt that wonder in Tuscaloosa, and I found it in Birmingham. There, I became; here, I become. Wherever I go from here, I feel certain there will be the sky and there will be the Lord and there will be the wonder; at least, that is my prayer. Like Johnny Flynn said, the breath I’ve taken and the one I must to go on. IMG_6187

Look Me in the Eye

“You relax.” I nod, evidence I’ve heard her, but she takes my hand and shakes her head; she pulls on it, and my muscles tighten, evidence I’ve heard her but not listened. “You no relax! You relax.” Again she picks up my hand and tries to clean them up, which is what I’ve come here for. She blows out a frustrated sigh. “You relax.” I nod again, but I’m still not sure if I get it right.

Later, when I try to scoot my chair in, I bang my finger on the corner of her table. It hurts. I lay my hands back down in front of her, hoping she won’t notice, but she does. “Oh no! I cut you? You hurt?”

“No!” I say. “No, I did it.”

“You hurt?”

“Yes, but…”

“You hurt.”

Even though she didn’t do it, she tsk-tsks and takes out a bottle of medicine. She clips off the slip of hanging skin, wipes away the pooled blood, drops some kind of medicine over the wound that is deeper than I thought—“It will burn, but it will be better!”—and then we get back to the nails, which is why I came here. I came here to be cleaned up, pampered. I came here to relax.

When I get home, I hold it up to show Caleb. “I got a boo boo.” He picks up my hand. “That’s a good one,” he says, and then I fold a decorated Band-Aid over it.

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***

When I show up at Janie’s door, she takes me in. There are no Band-Aids, decorated or otherwise, but the way I fold myself into her arms lets her know what has happened: I got a boo boo. It’s good one.

“What is it?” she says, rubbing my back, and I shrug, for there was never one hit that made me bleed; rather, it was a hard week, a long week. “It was fruitful,” I say through hiccups. “But it hurt.”

We climb the stairs to her living room, and I sit down on her couch, and we don’t say much about anything, but one of the greatest reliefs of friendship like this is that there are no elephants in the room (unless they’re University of Alabama paraphernalia). Instead, we talk about the things we can; we take the boo boos, the flights and the falls, the mountain climbs and the slides into the ditches, one at a time. We will get to the hard things. But first, she reaches over to take my hand, and I see it in her face: “You relax.”

Yes, I came here to relax.

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***

Sometimes when I’m conducting interviews, I ask people this question they hate to answer: “If you could tell a large group of people one thing, what would you tell them?” (Full disclosure: I did not make this question up.) Sometimes, the people I write about have had many interviews or maybe have made many speeches, and they get this opportunity all the time. “But what if it was your last time?” I press, and then I hold eye contact until they grow awkward enough to break the silence with an answer. Sometimes, they’re people who have never had an interview before and didn’t know they should be expecting this question. The same thing occurs—“Oh, I don’t know!”—but I hold my ground. Almost always, they articulate something eloquent and true. Almost always, I quote their answers in the stories I write about them.

Nobody’s ever asked me that question, and I’m sure I would ask to have one or two or three answers. I would give disclaimers to each one, specific circumstances where the advice should be applied. The interviewer would grow weary and his or her iPad would die. Somebody would need to get up for a third cup of coffee. (This is why I do the interviewing.)

But if I did answer, I might say find every inch of your identity in Jesus Christ, and never give it up to anything else. And I would say that you will have hard, long weeks even when you think you’re talented at finding all of the remarkable things in this life. And I would say that sometimes everything that you think should be simple suddenly becomes complicated. And sometimes you have to go to funerals on Wednesday afternoons. And sometimes your plan changes, and it does so without asking you, and right on the heels of deadline, too. And sometimes you are lonely even though you’re surrounded by people, and sometimes you slam your finger into a desk while you’re trying to get your nails painted. And sometimes everything seems cloudy and uncertain, and sometimes you’re one more hard conversation away from stopping to buy a cookie, and when the conversation comes, you stop for the cookie and they’re sold out.

And what about the wounds, the ones that are deeper than you thought? What do you do? When everything changes? When it all stays the same? What do you do with your bleeding, cookieless heart? Where do you take it?

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See, I would tell all the people to find some people, just a few, who pick up your hands, kiss your boo boo, and make you feel better by saying, “Oh, that’s a good one,” or, “Let’s go get our nails done,” or even nothing.

And then someone in the audience might hold up his or her hand and I would say, “Yes, question? You in the back?”

He would probably have to yell to be heard, so he would stand up. “But isn’t it sometimes those people who hurt you? Isn’t that risky? Don’t you get hurt that way?”

And I would say, “Yes.” And that person might not say anything back, but I would see the next question on everyone’s faces.

Is it worth it? Is it worth it?

 

***

I walk up to the circle, and her eyes flood with relief at the sight of my face.

In an uncertain room, we exchange glances and everything becomes OK.

“Is she your friend?” “Yes,” I say. My sister, I think.

I hold up my hand, and he takes it. “That was a long week,” I say and he nods, but we both know that we turned a corner. And around the corner, there is sunshine again. And cookies.

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***

Later, it’s one of them, a phone call, a text message: “I’m freaking out.” And then it’s my turn.

“You hurt?”

“What is it?”

“You relax.”

“Let me see your boo. Oy, that’s good one.” And I wrap a decorated Band-Aid around the boo boos, and we hold hands anyway.”Don’t worry,” I say. “This will heal right up.”

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And every time, it’s worth it.

While We’re Living

I’ve started so many blog posts this way: I was talking with my best friend, and she said something that made my heart catch. Of the two of us, I am, hands-down, the rambler. These days, with our persons in different states, our friendship is oft nurtured via telephone, and we are blessed by hour-and-a-half-long chats that I know won’t always be possible. And when this happens, usually as we’re driving or walking, or sometimes when we’re both sitting on our respective couches as the sun sets, I’m the rambler. It’s my way; it’s how I tell stories, how I debrief my day, how I slog through the vortex of my emotions (which is sometimes a task, I tell you). It’s often how I write these posts, letting my fingers do the rambling, surprised afterward at what I’ve said. It’s what I’m doing right now.

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I told her about a new story I’m writing at the magazine. I told her about the concert I’m going to next week. I told her about what I was having for dinner, about how I built a bookshelf this past weekend and was a smidgeon concerned that I could come home any day to a pile of shelves and pages. She mm-hmed and laughed, and sometimes, we were both just quiet. And then—not exactly out of the blue, for I’d just asked her the same question—she asked me about my greatest epiphany of the last five months, for it’s been that long since we graduated college and set off the chain of Life Changes. (By the way, she had a great answer, and I told her she can come guest blog any day.) I was walking on a path that’s covered in trees in just the way you hope it will be, and the sun was making everything glow, and we were talking about epiphanies. I searched through the last five months for my epiphanies. I’ve had some moments that have slammed me, for sure. There were moments when people surprised me, in ways that I thought were good and sometimes in ways that I thought weren’t. There were moments when the city swallowed me up, and somewhere in the midst, I realized that it had happened. There were moments when I sat in my car and cried, because I felt hurt or scared or really, really joyful. There were moments when I made decisions that changed corners of my life that needed to be nudged in different directions. There were so many firsts, when my shaky knees took me right into what would turn out to be my life. But I wouldn’t call any of these epiphanies exactly.photo 2

I’m writing about this because while I’ve learned all sorts of things I’d love to share with soon-to-graduate twentysomethings who have that same light in their eyes that I did (and do), I think my greatest epiphany came as I talked to my best friend walking along that trail, when she asked me to voice it. I didn’t tell her about the emotions I’ve wrangled, the long conversations I’ve had, how I’ve learned the Interstate system or even that being brave is mostly what it’s cracked up to be and that Jesus is in the loving business. Instead, I told her this: “I’ve learned it never stops.” I paused, and she waited for the explanation she knew I’d bring. I even stopped on the path, which happened to be where the wildflowers grow, and let the runners pass me by. “It never stops,” I said again. “No matter what season you’re in, there is always everything: There is always struggle, and there is always joy.”

The rest of our lives are waiting for us, and we’re waiting for them. I’ve been called nostalgic and while I often live up to that claim—and embrace it—I also like to go forward. Well, I could say it like this: I’ve been called a dreamer, too, and God knows I’m not the only one. In that same phone call, I talked all about what may happen come December, come three years from now, come once I finally buy a coffee bean grinder. In the past five months, I’ve consoled my fragile-feeling heart and my shaky knees with will-be’s: When I’m settled, my knees won’t shake. When I know this place, I won’t have to be brave as often. When I get married, I’ll have someone to put bookshelves together for me and I won’t have to worry about them collapsing (or when I go to carpenter school). But my voice was clear and sure, my declaration as illuminating as the sunshine on the trees: Every season, there is struggle to learn from. And every season, there is joy to be found.

It was true before I graduated, when I’d lie in bed at night and dream of the future, when I read job posting after job posting and prayed for provision. It was true over the summer, as the Lord whispered truth over me: “Daily bread,” he told me, and “Hope,” he sung. It was true when I came to Birmingham and when the jobs happened: New city, new life, same old shaky knees. And it’s what I’d tell anyone who asked now, maybe someone who doesn’t want another Buzzfeed post with 20 gifs that make being a twentysomething easier or someone who is ten years old than me—thirty, flirty, and thriving, if you will—but as unsure as she was when she was 22.  It’s what I’d tell my grandmother, who just fought cancer and won, and it’s what I tell my little sister, who’s still in high school. No matter where you are, there are things to learn, ways to nudge those shadowy corners of your heart into the Light. No matter where you are, there are wildflowers on your path and coffee in your cup, if you pick them and pour it. Some days are harder than others, yes. (But really. Some days are really terrible.) Some months wring out your soul, and some seasons feel like you’re constantly walking on a gravel driveway barefooted. And yet, we can number the things that show us grace. We can ramble about grace and hope and new books and old friends and the way breathing comes easy some days.

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Sometimes, I close my eyes to feel the sun or the breeze or to staunch the tears, and when I open them, I’m surprised that I’m still in this life, the one that, honestly, still feels odd, like I’m wearing my dad’s suit jacket at church, and it’s slick and it’s too big, but it keeps me warm. And sometimes, my hearts flies ahead of me, and I am not Nostalgic Writer, but instead, I’m Dreamer-Wisher, and I am ten years down the road, sure it will be easier then. But I hear it in my nana’s voice: It’s not.

So I look backward and sometimes—lots of times—I miss what was. I write about it on occasion. And I look forward, and I long for promises to be fulfilled, and I leave the right now for some moment in the distance that’s sure to be everything for which I’m hoping. And I’m sure it will (I write about that on occasion, too.) And then, I steady my feet. I go on a walk. I talk about life with my best friend, and it hits me: No matter where I am, it’s life. And I find my epiphany there, even as—and I could not make this up if I wanted to—storm clouds roll in for the last half mile. It’s always going to be life, but we can love it.

And over a cup of coffee, that’s what I want to keep talking about, and on the days that are hard and the ones that are easy, it’s what I want to keep finding—Always, there is struggle, because life is hard. Always, there is joy, because life is full of wonderful things like my best friend and giraffes and pizza. Always, you have a choice, and you won’t always choose life, but here’s to getting better at it.

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Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! –Deuteronomy 30:19

When the Wild Thing is Love

I’m pretty fearful.

You must know this already, if you’ve been around for any time at all. I fear being left behind, and I fear being the one who has left. I fear the unknown and I fear staying the same. I fear failing, and I fear succeeding, and I will always, always fear being pulled behind a boat attached to a string. I’m interested in getting over all of those fears except the last one.

I fear loving and being loved–I especially fear these things done perfectly. For we have been told, “perfect love casts out fear,” and I guess that I fear losing all of my fear: What would I cling to then? How would I know when I’ve gone too far? For what other reason would I climb into bed again and leave it until tomorrow or decide, instead, to look out for my own best interests?

flowernotweedsBut a bigger part of me–or at least a part that is growing steadily, some part that the fear touches, but does not consume–knows this is just the scaredy cat of my heart mewing. This nugget knows and believes in perfect love and what it does. And whether this part of me is beating in some corner of my heart or burning down in the gutsiest part of my gut or standing on my shoulders ready to run, it intrigues me, challenges me, asks more what-ifs about loving perfectly. It suggests that I do not lock my car doors or avert my eyes when someone on the street looks at me, questions in his eyes, on his lips, in his hands: “Ma’am, do you want to buy a newspaper?” No, I don’t, get away from my car, I’m a girl, I’m a young girl, get away from my car, you’re scaring me.

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I like to control how I’m loved–that’s silly, isn’t it, but there all the same–but I don’t mind being loved, per se. I like it most when people steadily drizzle their love on me, so that I may take it in slowly, taste its sweetness, announce at once if I wish it to stop. That process is all steeped in fear, for if it’s a rush, if I get drenched summer-rainstorm style by someone’s love, I’m left dry if they take it away.

I like to control how I love, too. I like to love extravagantly, I do. I like to love endlessly and tirelessly, but I like to decide how I do this. I like to love the people who do not make me uncomfortable. I like to encourage and pray for and pour into and lavish those souls who have proved that they love me back, that they’re interested in being loved by me, though I can’t claim to love even them perfectly. But at least I know they don’t mind imperfect lovin.

1044913_10200553799139981_1876305815_nBut then this is spoken to me, a refrigerator verse if I ever heard it: “Perfect love casts out all fear.” Get your toes wet in that, though, and you might want to take it down off your refrigerator.

Love and trust, these things walk hand-in-hand down sunset beaches and through the slums and in the grocery store aisles, arguing over what kind of spaghetti sauce to buy. Trust and fear, these things cannot be in the same room without lessening the other. So this is the call: Step into trust. Trust what you cannot see. And to that call, I so often say, “No, I’m sitting in a chair if I can’t see it.” This seems wise.

But oh, the wise are shamed. And our God takes things the world dubs foolish and calls them smartypants. And he asks me to sit in a chair, to get so wet I’ll never dry out, to turn around and love the old man on the street corner–the one selling newspapers–like I know for sure he’ll love me back.

Being able to do this, love so deeply that you must turn down your happy music when you pass someone hurting so that you can have a reverent place to cry, love so fearlessly that you go back into the houses of those who have hurt you and try again, love so remarkably that the recipients want to try it themselves–this takes 100 buckets of trust and not a single one of fear.

photo 1It takes you, on your knees, tasting first the kind of love that fills you up and drives you forward, with no time left to consider safety.

I’m pretty fearful, fearful and yet learning all the time to spend my days loving, loving where and who and whatever is before me, loving practically and grandly, quietly and gently, through and through.

I’m pretty fearful until I find myself loved so wholly that it must be perfect, and then–then I am not fearful any longer.

On Taking You With Me: A Letter to Tuscaloosa

Home,

I needed to write this while you were still just that: the place I know, through and through, and the place that knows me best, too. Today marks one month left with you, give or take some days I’m not quite sure about. My things are still where they belong, not stacked in boxes or stored in my parents’ garage. So now seemed like a good time.

I have no natural sense of direction, you know that? And that’s what scared me most, the day I moved here. The road that brought me here does not change–it’s a straight shot–but there’s a bit where one rounds a bend and then, all of a sudden, one is here. Before the bend, it’s just a road; after the bend, it’s Tuscaloosa. As I rounded the bend and laid eyes on the city, I thought only this: “I don’t know how to get anywhere.” I’m not saying it was easy, finding all of your shortcuts, learning how to get places on time despite the train, constantly turning down roads untraveled, but it sure was fun. I learned you. That was the first thing you taught me: You can learn.

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I know when it happened to us, when you stopped being the city I was in when I left home and became my home. It was the summer after my sophomore year, after the tornado left you empty and ravaged, after the people fled for places still standing. It’s not just because I saw what the wind did to you, or because I watched your people cry and shake their fists at the sky and then build you again; it’s because it seemed, that whole summer, like it was just the two of us, like you didn’t mind taking in my secrets and letting them blow away in your wind. And every night, I would watch the sun set over your waters, and I would learn lesson after lesson about beauty, right there gazing at it across your skies. When all of the people came back, I carried it around with me, this understanding between us that they didn’t know you like I did, that they couldn’t hear you singing from wherever they were in the world like I do. And so, you were home.

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The years since then–since the wind rocked us and the summer sun shined beauty again–have just solidified the feeling. Here is where I first met myself; where I first met my best friends in the world; where God met me. Here, on the landing at the library where I hauled my problems and laid on the concrete until I was light enough to leave again; here, on that bench where I’ve both giggled and cried, held someone’s hand and wrapped my own arms around myself; here, in the stretch along the river, where I’ve watched the sun sink so many times, never worried whether it would rise again. Here, the place that was always waiting for me to come back, waiting to remind me that we are a team. It all happened here, a city without an ocean or mountains or skyscrapers. Here is all I needed, though.

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And yet, it’s time to go. There’s a stirring in me that knows it’s so, even though the thought of packing all of my books and photos and coffee mugs and taking them elsewhere causes my hands to tremble (not a good thing for mug-packing.) But Tuscaloosa, the very best thing you’ve taught me is how to love wholly, freely, fiercely, without reservation, without worrying about what I’ll lose. And so that is how I love you, and how I’ll love the next place, too. For that reason, I can’t promise that I’ll be back all the time (though you’ll still be home to some of my favorite souls, so maybe.) But I can pinkie swear that wherever I go, I’ll take it with me, the beauty and the joy, the way the sun drops over the trees against the river, but the light lingers all around. I’ll tell them I came from you, that you gave me a place to learn who I am, to be who I am, to love who I am. When I talk about you, my eyes will light up, so they will know that it’s true.

beautyatTargetAnd I will come back. Some day, I’ll bring little ones here, all of us wearing crimson. I’ll take them to the landing at the library, point out the bench, stand them in my favorite nook along the river, where I can see the whole span of trees and light and water. I’ll bend down so that I am level with them, seeing it as they do, and I’ll say, “Brave ones, this is where your mama fell in love.” Their eyes will grow wide, and they’ll look at me incredulously, perhaps knowing that I didn’t meet their father in Tuscaloosa. “Mama!” they’ll exclaim, “With whom?” (That grammar control! Gosh, I love them already.)

I’ll gaze back at that same sun landing on those same trees, the same river singing the same songs I used to hear, and because we had the kind of romance one does not soon forget, I might whisper the answer: “With all of it, loves. With all of it.”

sunsetloveYou’re home now, and home forever, Tuscaloosa. Thanks for loving me, letting me love you, and giving me more than my fair share of sunsets.

Yours forever,

Lindsey