Thankfulness at 30: People (Here)

During the fellow program, we were assigned to make a list of our governing values – the underlying principles that led us to make decisions and set priorities. Among my values were punctuality, loyalty, learning, family and relationships.

But I’m realizing more and more that I am primarily governed by relationships. I make decisions based on people and will shift my whole day around if someone that I love needs me to. As is true of most things, this is harder to do in DC – jobs can be inflexible, traffic can destroy the best laid plans, and after long days, a lot of people just want to be left alone.

It can be a lonely world when you are prioritizing people, but the people around you have a different agenda. But from the day that I arrived in this city, I have been blessed with people who are determined to invite me in, to fight the traffic, to let me stay for dinner even when it’s frozen pizza on paper plates. And because of them, I have not been alone. My twenties have been full of rich relationships, open arms and seats at the table. And I am grateful.

I want to write long stories of all the people who have preserved through the anonymity of this city to make it feel like home, but I am afraid that my pen will run out and my memory will fail me. I was welcomed in when I was a stranger and given a home and the trusting hearts of 6th grade girls. I want to tell you about the movie marathons we had seemingly every week when Amy was sick. About the late nights spent at the black kitchen table at 5 Doors as candles barely illuminated the room. I want you to know the joy of memorizing another family’s prayers and how fun it is to offer a birthday toast for someone else’s child. I want to take you on walks around Springfield and Sycamore and Great Falls. I could write about the Easter afternoon spent on a porch swing with dear women, or about sitting in a van talking about how to love teenagers well. I could paint you pictures of standing Monday night dinners and open mic nights and progressive dinner parties. We’ve been caroling and camping and canoeing and sledding and seen the sun rise and gotten deliberately snowed in together. I have ugly cried in my pastor’s office and taken a moment behind my couch and been told that I would not die alone, because I have the love of these dear friends. They have inconvenienced themselves for the sake of loving me well, and that is the best gift I could ask for.

I cannot tell you all of their stories. Instead, I offer their names.

Tim, Jodi, Bill, John, Cynthia, James, Amy, Regan, Ryan, Dan, Mark, Betsy, Lori, Carrie, Maripat, Deb, Jim, Laura, Steve, Becca, Cameron, Megan, Marianne, Liz, Elizabeth, Janice, Amy, CPosse, BlakeHouse, and Dan. 

You have loved me well. You have allowed me into your lives and insisted that you know me in the process. There is no greater gift that you could have given me. I enter my 30s in this place, far from home, but still known and loved all the same, because you invited me in, and let me love you in return.

Thank you.

Thankfulness at 30: Place

It is easy to indulge in an anonymous lifestyle during your twenties. New cities, new jobs, new relationships – you can reinvent yourself every few years and few people would be the wiser. Perfect the art of happy hour chatter and you will always be invited to the next party, welcomed in the next group.

As I march toward 30, I am grateful that I have been given a different story. And that story has largely been rooted and nourished by people and place. I’ve tried hard to separate the two, but the truth is, they are inextricably linked. So when you read your place, know that I am speaking of you. Thank you.

I begin by being grateful for home. For the Village, which cared for my soul and fed my mind and challenged my spirit, even as I was beginning adulthood. But also for the big green couch where I read the final Harry Potter book, trading off chapters with Laura; where I sat to open Christmas presents and collapsed when I came home from college. I’m thankful for fires in the fireplace that twinkled through our wine glasses as we read Christmas cards; for my sunflower yellow bedroom wall that told me I was home and for the glass dining room table that stretched to fit all of the family at Thanksgiving once we were finally all old enough to appreciate that we had been given each other. I’m thankful for sturdy kitchen counters that held dear friends as we talked about our increasingly separate worlds; for the hardwood floors where I sat and played with my dog; and for the front porch stoop that let me watch the neighborhood and remember who I am.

I’m thankful for Grove City College – for the chapel gardens that heard our prayers of heartache and hard families and stubborn sins and the ever-sought travel mercies. For the apartments where I learned how to cook my own Thanksgiving meal alongside the friends who had become family, about the importance of carefully planned spontaneity and the welcome of an ongoing Scrabble game. I’m thankful for the way that the sun shone through the tall windows in the Gee/SAC/STU, illuminating the loud laughter of friends at the tables in the corner and for real conversations that were always more important than homework. I’m grateful for the hard, wooden pews of the chapel that caught my tears, even as the hands of friends pressed the Spirit back into my heart. And for the Hall of Arts and Letters where I learned to think, to challenge, and to listen, in service to the Lord and the world.

Other days will tell of my gratitude toward McLean Presbyterian Church and the home and haven that they have provided. But here, I will mention that place as a doorway into others. Out of MPC came the Sycamore House, the first place in DC that felt not like a borrowed home, but truly, deeply, a home of my own. We toured the empty house with dreams for its future – dreams that beautifully turned into reality. Shared evening meals, backyard bar-b-ques, costume parties, cook offs, dance parties, movie nights, bridal showers, snow days, and laughter – so much laughter. If a building itself can be a gift, the small brick house on Sycamore was an abundance. I’m thankful for lessons in hospitality and improvisation and the importance of always having canned goods and bottles of wine. And for the laughter.

After Sycamore came the legend that was 5 Doors Down. If Sycamore was a place for widespread hospitality, 5DD was more a place for rest. There were parties – homecomings and Christmas caroling and Easter dinners – but there were more meals with just a few friends, or, more often than not, just us roommates. We would come home from long days and sit for hours, drinking tea at our candle-lit table and processing through our increasingly complex worlds. All of us would start new jobs while living there, wrestle with heartbreak, struggle with deeply-rooted sin and talk through how to love our families, friends, and neighbors. I am grateful for the space to welcome in my beloved d-group and to sit and laugh and cry with them in the comfort of a home; for a “guest room” that allowed us to welcome in visiting friends and sometimes strangers in need of a place to rest; for the trinket shelves and the children’s books and an abundance of throw pillows. And I’m thankful for the movie marathons and late-night preposterous conversations; for the Red Mango runs, the wild accusations, the no-pudge brownies and the life that was lived within those walls. I’m thankful for a place where I could walk through the door and exhale, because I knew that I was loved and cared for.

As I enter 30, my house is no longer a place of comfort and knowledge, but largely a place of anonymity. And so I appreciate the depth and beauty of these places all the more. To spend a decade largely removed from the connections of family and history and still find yourself known and loved and rooted is perhaps the greatest gift.

And I am grateful.

It Is and It Isn’t

I wanted to title this post #30DaysTill30 but thought that my almost-40-year-old self would judge my almost-30-year-old self for it, and we can’t have that, now can we? But nevertheless, that is why we are here. In 30 days, I will turn 30. I will have circled the sun 30 times and done a rather lot of living in spite of also traveling at 1,000 miles per hour. It’s a funny existence, this life, if you stop to think about it.

Thirty feels firm; planted. It feels secure and adventurous and uncharted, all at the same moment.

My approach to 30 feels different than I anticipated. At 30, I thought I’d be married, with children, in a nice home that was owned, not rented. I’m not sure that I ever stopped to think about a particular location that this 30-year-old-apparition would dwell, but I’m pretty sure it was in the suburbs. I imagined friends – dear friends – who I would laugh and joke and cry with, and who would call me from the grocery store to see if I needed milk. I’d hoped for dinner parties and play-dates and familiar vacations; for a challenging and loving church and a vocation that was thoughtful. I thought that I would be planning for the next decade with firm boundary lines drawn that would define the next 10 years.

That is not the 30 that I’m approaching.

Well, it is and it isn’t.

What I imagined was the life that I had known – it was the life of my parents at 30; or the life that 17-year-old me perceived that my 30-year-old parents must have had, judging by their lives closer to 50. It had not taken into account the stress of having 1-year-old twins, or a new job or a new house – all of which my parents possessed at 30. This imaginary life hadn’t factored in my own temperament or choices or the generation that I was born into. And so, I’m here. I’m here, approaching 30 with new eyes. With different hopes. Not better or worse, I don’t think, but different.

Instead of spending my twenties building a marriage and creating my requisite 2.5 children, I’ve been able to find different adventures. I moved to the nation’s capital and met some extraordinary people who are daily changing the country and the world that we live in to reflect more of Christ’s kingdom come. I’ve had the gift of time to find meaningful work that challenges me and helps the world flourish, even if in small ways. A lack of family commitments has allowed me to give my time in service of wandering 20-somethings, energetic teenagers, and parents who need an ally. I have traveled the world with my sister and the country with my friends, even meeting new ones along the way. Dear friends have found me, and even if most of them don’t live in my neighborhood, they send letters and flowers and when they can, they meet me for frozen yogurt or drive-by hugs as they wait through layovers at Dulles airport. My church has both loved and challenged me, although both the love and the challenge have been harder to accept than I could have imagined. And this weekend, I’m throwing a dinner party.

What I have is abundance, with all the contours of real mixed in. There is much joy, but there is also deep sadness. I am well-loved and taken care of, but loneliness often creeps in. And yet I want to remain grateful. My life is a blessing; it is grace – undeserved and overflowing at every turn.

And so I am going to approach 30 as I hope to approach each day – with thankfulness. For the next 30 days, I will be reflecting on my 20s and the blessings that found me during those years. This is more for me, then for you, but I’m grateful for you too, dear reader, and so I invite you into my window of thankfulness. Maybe I’ll set a pie on the windowsill or add some twinkle lights so you feel more welcome. Because truly, I am grateful that you are along for the journey.

Moving

While it may not be an overstatement to describe my recent move as the hardest I have made in my life, that statement seems to beg for sympathy and neglects to mention that on the whole, I have had a wonderful life. Nevertheless, this season of my life has been filled with transitions and goodbyes and unasked for beginnings, which have made this city feel uncharted despite my 7 years spent in her care. Where the anonymity of the nation’s capital once felt bold and liberating, it now presses in on me, tightening my chest like the July humidity.

So to counter the ache that I feel for home and the longing I have to be known, I have taken to finding the good things. The blessings hidden in the city or the joy of finding unexpected familiar faces in the crowd.

- A storm came in today. One of those bend-the-trees-with-the-wind storms that lights up the sky enough for you to see waves of rain fanning from the sky. I watched the storm, safely perched in my 8th floor office with space to appreciate it’s terrifying beauty and engaging work to return to once it had passed.
– I write this on a train. A train taking me to see an old friend in the city. Amid transience and happy hour friendships, there are glimpse of longevity; of staying; of pressing in to the harder road.
– Although I am grateful for safe public transportation, I am even more grateful that my daily commute spans less than 1 mile. That my home-work-life circles overlap and that my life is not eaten by traffic or crowded trains, giving me the freedom to read, cook, write, rest.
– That coherent life led me to spend the weekend visiting with neighbors. To be sure, they were my friends before they were my neighbors, but reclaiming the life of a neighborhood is, as Wendell Berry says, a gift. Each step reinforces that these streets are my streets; these trees are my trees. I am not alone but have been bound up with others, if only by the same HOA.

And none of these tell of the ties of covenant relationships spoke of by James on Sunday or the meal shared with my oldest friend that same night. They don’t tell of the daily care that surrounds me or my family who loves me across the miles. And I am sure that still more graces will be given, more blessing will appear.

May we all have eyes to see.

Constraint.

I’ve been thinking a lot about constraint. Limitations. Boundaries. They are words that I chafe against; they make me bristle and put me on the defensive. But lately, they have also been defining me.

I just moved away from my safe, comfortable, known house of 5 Doors Down into a house of strangers. Technically, this was my choice. I wasn’t evicted and I’m not being held hostage. But I am here because of constraints. I am constrained by my income and my belief that living within my means is the best course of action. DC traffic forms a clear boundary and my attitude in traffic limits the time I should spend commuting. All of these constraints pooled together to drive me to my current situation.

On a broader level, everything that defines me constrains me. I live in DC, not somewhere else. That comes with transience and traffic and a perpetual election cycle. I am a member of just one church (as a part of the holy, catholic and apostolic kind), where vows I have taken bind me to service, to obedience, to accountability. I have a specific occupation that comes with unique assignments and a finite number of vacation days. Each of these things constrain me. They set the boundaries of my life. But in so doing, they also set me free. I am free to be involved in one church, one city. I am free to invest in this relationship and not that one. I am free to live a life of fullness and wholeness where God has placed me, and am also free from worrying about all of the vast facets of life that have not placed a boundary around me.

But even as I write that, I feel resentment toward those constraints sneaking in. There are days that I want to defy the laws of physics and the expectations of work and spend a year teleporting around to any friend who needs me. I have sat in inexplicable traffic jams as hot tears rolled down my face in protest of such an obstacle to relationships. But I am bound, in time and place, to the life that I have chosen, that God has given me.

The Psalmist writes, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” And that’s well and good for King David, but I often feel like my boundary lines have been gerrymandered to cause the most frustration.

I’ve been reading this little book by Kate Harris called Wonder Women. She lives in DC and just gets it. In it, she reminds me that I am not the first person in history to feel the impact of unpleasant constraints:

“One of the more radical claims of Christianity is that we worship a God who willingly took on constraints. We worship a God who bent low and took on flesh…And it has some pretty profound things to tell us about what God thinks of our so-called limitations — especially if you’re like me and prefer to greet limitations with kicking and screaming or maybe a good, long pout”

I have not given up heaven for earth; perfection for the fall. I have only known this broken world with these limitations. And though I fight against them, a wider story is at work; a deeper magic that the world has almost forgotten. Kate goes on to say:

“Still, Easter reminds us — even at the height of human limitations on the cross — that God does not perceive them as we do. God is not surprised by even the ultimate constraint of death, nor is He deterred by it…[And so] we consent to our constraints, trusting He will use them as He did at the incarnation, to bring forth abundance.”

I don’t know what sort of abundance might be waiting for me at the next turn, but I want to be open to it. Open arms, open hands, in one city, one place.

Belonging to Faithfulness

Lately, I’ve been pondering faithfulness.

Every six weeks or so, I get to teach junior high Sunday school. We’re studying Exodus and on Sunday, I taught on Exodus 24 – the confirmation of the covenant. We are a covenant people, secured as the people of God through His faithfulness; our lavish promises are dust. Yet even as we break the faith, echoes of covenant faithfulness still dance on my heart. The covenant teaches me that I belong to that which is bigger than myself. This plays out in numerous ways each day – I belong to my household and as such am bound up in the joys and sorrow of my roommates – sometimes multiplying the joys and sometimes adding to the sorrows. I belong to my church, through the gift of the blood of Christ and the vows I stood up and promised. But today, I’ve been pondering a more unusual fidelity of belonging.

There is a small community of people, tied together not by blood or geography or denomination or occupation, but through an abiding belief that beauty is found in unexpected places and that Christ plays in 10,000 places. They believe that in some small measure, the story of one of us is the story of us all. And because of that, fidelity plants fast roots.

Today, this community prepared to gather in Nashville. This year, I will not be joining them, as faithfulness to family must trump faithfulness to this band of kindred souls. It was at once a decision that was obvious and terribly hard. And so I am left pondering what it will look like to belong to these friends only from a distance. In fact, I spend most of the year belonging from a distance, with Facebook being used to its absolutely best potential to soften the blow of the miles. Occasional road trips, concerts, and impromptu gatherings are grace that bring me closer to a handful of these dear friends, but even these are dim reflections of the fullness that I know is possible.

So the question that I am left with is how to cultivate and grow my own faithfulness to these souls across time and space, with no promise of flesh-and-blood communion. What will it look like to belong to one another outside of shared meals on candlelit tables, or conversations on rickety swings or silence exhaled in unison on a concrete sidewalk? This sort of faithfulness seems harder. I am left to belong through prayers offered up for needs spoken and groaned for; through books poured over as imaginations are cultivated in the same soil; through music washing over me as it washes over you.

And so, I will abide in faithfulness and trust in the Lord to hold us all in the palm of His hand,

where we first belonged, and shall remain forever.

*click*

If I hadn’t already called dibs on teleportation, I would claim “photographic memory” as my superpower.

When I was a kid, I read the Cam Jansen books. The main character is a red-headed girl, so like Nancy Drew and Anne (of the green gables) you just knew she was going to be awesome. And sure enough, she was. Cam (real name: Jennifer) is a super detective, who uses her photographic memory to solve mysteries. Best as I can remember, she blinks her eyes and says *click* and can remember anything.

Sign me up.

I spent last week with high schoolers. First, teenage-sitting for two of my favorite people, then, on a retreat with 50 high school students, including twelve of my own. (I’ve known them for seven years and so feel like the possessive pronoun is appropriate.) And I so desperately want to remember each and every moment.

Musty copies of Emerson and Thoreau delicately leafed through to find the perfect poetry recitation on Valentine’s Day while I make two teenage boys omelets for breakfast.                *click*

Six girls sitting on basement barstools, with their backs to me, reaching over each other for bags of chocolate, half-eaten chips and one lone bag of carrots as their laughter melds together.                *click*

The face of the confident senior as he shouts out song lyrics in the middle of a crowded dance floor, with no care for being on key.                *click*

Late night cuddle fests on top of four interlocking sleeping bags when conversations are no longer coherent and I can no longer tell which limb belongs to which girl.                *click*

An iPod stuffed inside a cup for better amplification to accompany a Disney sing-along and dance party in between chopping vegetables in the kitchen.                *click*

Hands clasped in prayer as thanksgiving is offered up for honey nut cheerios in the same breath as God’s unfailing grace.                *click*

Seven years feels like a whole lifetime. How many snapshots of the Lord’s faithfulness have I already forgotten? What moments of joy lay dormant in my memory? Seven years ago, these faces were names on a page. Now, they are stories, tears, personalized laughter, brokenness and redemption, fears and hopes. Seven years is an eternity.

I am often asked why I spend so much of my free time with teenagers. Why I answer my phone when it rings at two in the morning. Why someone pushing 30 needs snapchat on her phone. Why I would drive an hour across town in rush hour traffic for a half hour conversation over coffee. For me, these snapshots are the reason. But perhaps for you, I need to go back a bit further.

I’m sitting in a semi-circle of girls, facing my choir teacher, listening to her tell a class full of public school show choir girls that irrespective of what we believed, she knew that the God of the universe had allowed her husband to spin circles on the snowy highway, hit the median and walk away without a scratch.                *click*

It is a warm night in Goshen, Virginia and I am sitting on the steps of a Rockbridge dorm, bombarding my Young Life leader with hard questions about heaven and hell, confident that even though the answers may allude her, she will be there to hear any of my hard questions.                *click*

A rambunctious group of junior high girls is piled into the second floor church bathroom – the one with the couches – ignoring our discussion questions and giggling about boys as our high school leaders smiled and followed along.                *click*

A table of eager fourth graders nervously eye each other’s frilly Bible covers and meticulously placed book tabs as we get ready to study Esther and Ruth with two women who have seemingly arbitrarily decided to invest in a small group of 10 year old girls.                *click*

I could start answering your questions by explaining that I was well-loved as a teenager. Older women opened their lives to me and let me ask hard questions and showed me that though life would be difficult, God had given us each other. I am simply following the model that was given me.

 We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first.” 1 John 4:19, MSG

Isn’t it the model we have all been given? There are a million ways to love from love. But for as long as they will have me, I will choose this way. Seven years is just the beginning.